Those questions that you know they’re going to ask in the interview. You know the ones. The ones that always start with “Tell me about a time when you…” that require you to answer with a specific example from past roles. They are the dreaded behavior-based interview questions.

job-interview-5First, it’s important to recognize why interviewers are asking these questions. The main reason is to understand how you’ve handled situations in the past as a way to know how you will deal with similar situations in the future if they hire you. Behavior-based questions are said to be up to 50% more effective than “traditional” questions in predicting future performance. Great interviewers who know what it takes for a person to be successful in the role they are hiring for understand the importance of behavior-based questions. So, they use this interviewing technique to find the square peg for their square hole.

So how do you, as the interviewee, prepare for and answer behavior-based questions with ease (and also give them an authentic sneak preview into your future performance at their company)? Here are a few tips:

  1. Know What You Do Better Than Anyone Else – I am a huge proponent for leveraging natural strengths and instincts in the workplace. You first have to tune into and not be shy about touting your own strengths as well as your skills. Then you must be ready with compelling examples from your previous positions of how you’ve used those strengths to create value for your past employers.

    Think about when you’ve felt ultimately successful at work. Not only were you praised for the outcomes you produced but you just knew that had accomplished great work. What kinds of problems were you solving in those successful moments? How did you solve them? What strengths as well as learned skills did you use to solve them? What are the stories that illustrate those success moments that will demonstrate in the interview the value you will bring to your next role and company.

    A few words of caution:  How much time do you want to spend in your next role doing what you thoroughly dislike doing, even if you have learned to be very good – or even successful – at it?  These are examples to shy away from in an interview because who wants to do more of what feels like pulling teeth? I want you to do more of what you’re naturally strong at doing knowing that this means success not only for the company but for you personally. (For example, you will never hear me tell you how fast I am with pivot tables in Excel. I may have learned to be good at using this tool but this is not something I want to be known for. I want you to remember me as the go-to for brainstorming ideas that will get you unstuck when you find yourself, well, stuck, not for my pivot table prowess.)

  2. Prepare by Reverse-Engineering Your Responses – Instead of fretting over the specific questions they might ask, spend more time thinking about those 3-5 success stories, those stories from previous roles that you know you want to work into the interview because you produced stellar results doing what you do best. When you’ve identified 3-5 specific examples then ask yourself, “What questions do these answer?” Is it the question about when you made a big mistake that you can demonstrate that you learned something and never made that mistake again? Is it the question about a time when you had to work with a particularly difficult personality and your response is how you diffused volatile situations and were able to continue a productive working relationship? Match your must-tell success stories with as many possible questions they could be the answer to for the best investment in interview preparation time.
  3. Develop a C-A-R Response for Each Success Story – When interviewers ask behavior-based questions, they are looking for a response that demonstrates how you problem solve as well as the actual results.  An easy acronym for how to structure your answer to the behavior-based questions:

    C – Challenge or circumstance. Give a brief explanation of what was going on at the time.
    A – Action(s). Then describe the actions you took to meet the challenge head on.
    R – Results. Describe what was better because you took those actions.

    An example for someone in human resources facing a major culture problem:

    (Challenge/Circumstances) When I was hired at Acme, Inc., the culture was a mess. We had all-time high turnover and couldn’t recruit great new employees. The company had never done any kind of surveying so didn’t really understand why this was happening. (Action) I gathered several groups from among the employees and started asking a lot of questions. By asking a few very direct questions in a focus group format, I learned that one of the biggest issues was a complete lack of flexibility in employee scheduling. Once that was identified as one of the root causes, I then had multiple conversations with managers throughout the company. From those I learned that strict schedules weren’t critical to the work and that some flexibility could be worked into most roles. As a result, I worked with managers to identify individual employee needs to see how the company could work in flexibility in scheduling that meet the employees’ needs. (Results) I did an analysis of schedules and workloads by department, worked with managers to shift several schedules as little as a half hour earlier or later and made a huge positive impact. In roles that previously had more than 20% turnover, turnover dropped to 10%, which is lower than our industry’s average, in just one year. This saved the company about $50,000 alone in the cost to rehire for previously high-turnover positions.

    In short, know what you do best, have the stories to prove it, then be ready to describe them in a way that demonstrates the kind of results you’ll bring to your role in a new company.

A final note. When it’s your turn to ask questions, don’t shy away from asking the same types of behavior-based questions so you can decide if the job is right for you. One of my favorites, “Tell me about a time when the team was having trouble getting along. How did you handle it?” Your potential future manager’s response to that question will give you a far better idea of his or her management style than “So, tell me about your management style.” Don’t you think?
What types of behavior-based interview questions have you faced or asked? What were the results?

Contact OI Global Partners if you’d like help with behavior-based interviewing.

Meredith Masse is senior vice president, Innovative Career Consulting, Inc., OI Global Partners Denver. Meredith’s personal mission is to create “best places to work” filled with engaged employees and “follower-worthy” managers and leaders. 

Meredith guides leaders, teams and entire organizations to increase productivity and profitability while developing happier people. Meredith personally specializes in leveraging strengths in the workplace – in team development, career coaching and pre-hire selection and development assessments.  Partnering with companies across industries, she empowers teams to deliver better bottom-line results, increase productivity and improve efficiency. 

She can be reached at

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