How To Answer Behavioral Interview Questions (With Examples)

By Ryan Morris - Mar. 10, 2021
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Behavioral interview questions are some of the most common interview questions out there.

They’re designed to help hiring managers figure out the way you tend to behave while you’re at the job — and over the years, they’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out which questions are going to do the trick.

We’ll cover what behavioral questions are, why interviewers ask them, give advice on how to answer them, and provide plenty of sample questions and answers to help get you started.

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What Are Behavioral Interview Questions?

Behavioral interview questions are questions about how you’ve dealt with work situations in the past and seek to understand your character, motivations, and skills. The idea behind behavioral interview questions is that you’ll reveal how you’ll behave in the future based on your actions in the past.

Unlike traditional interview questions, a hiring manager or recruiter is looking for concrete examples of various situations you’ve been in at work. As such, the best way to prepare for any and all behavioral interview questions is to have an expansive set of stories ready for your interview.

A hiring manager is never going to come right out and tell you — before, during, or after the fact — whether or not your interview with them is traditional or behavioral.

That’s because the difference between the two is more related to philosophy than it is necessarily technique.

Often, an employer won’t even know themselves that the interview they’re conducting is behavioral rather than traditional — the deciding factors are the questions that they decide to ask, and where the interview’s focus settles on.

In a nutshell, traditional interviews are focused on the future, while behavioral interviews are focused on the past.

In a traditional interview, you’re asked a series of questions where you’re expected to talk about yourself and your personal qualities.

Interviews in this vein tend to ask questions that are sort of psychological traps — oftentimes the facts of your answer matter less than the way you refer to and frame those facts.

Moreover, if you find that you’re able to understand the underlying thing an interviewer is trying to learn about you by asking you a certain question, you might even find you’re able to game the system of the traditional interview a little bit by framing your answer in a particular way.

Behavioral interviews are harder to game, because instead of asking about how you might deal with a particular situation, they focus on situations you’ve already encountered.

In a behavioral interview, you probably won’t find yourself being asked about your strengths. Instead, you’ll be asked about specific problems you encountered, and you’ll have to give detailed answers about how you dealt with that problem, your thought process for coming up with your solution, and the results of implementing that solution.

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Why Interviewers Ask Behavioral Interview Questions

Hiring managers and recruiters like to ask behavioral interview questions to determine whether a candidate is a good cultural fit. They also help assess whether the behaviors you’ve exhibited in the past are what the company requires from the role you’re applying for.

That’s why you can expect more behavioral interview questions if your interviewer has a clear idea of what sort of person they want to hire for the job. For example, if they believe that time management and rapid communication are vital for success in the position you’re applying for, they’ll be on the lookout for answers that highlight these traits.

How to Answer Behavioral Job Interview Questions

Like with all interview questions, there is a right and a wrong answer — the issue with behavioral questions is that this answer can be much more difficult to figure out than with traditional interviews.

While it is, as we said before, more difficult to game behavioral interview questions than traditional ones, there is still a chance that you can figure out how to answer a question correctly based on the way it’s asked.

The interviewer isn’t trying to trick good people into giving “bad answers” — but they are trying to trick people with poor judgment into revealing themselves early on.

In this vein, here are some big things to keep in mind if you find yourself in a behavioral job interview:

  1. Highlight your skills. Think about the sort of skills you need to demonstrate in order to be successful at the job you hope to do. These skills are typically more general than they are specific — things like leadership skills, the ability to work with a team, brilliant decision-making, the advanced use of an industry technique etc.

    When you’re constructing your answer, think about how to portray your actions in such a way that shows off those skills.

  2. Tell a story. Remember that you’re telling a story and that ultimately, how you tell that story matters most of all. Try to make your story flow as naturally as possible — don’t overload the interviewer with unnecessary details, or alternately, forget too many details for the story to make sense.

    They need to understand your answer in order to parse out your behavior. They can’t do that if they can’t understand the story you just told them — in addition to which, they might just find that a person who can’t tell a simple story is just too annoying to work with.

  3. Use the STAR method. If you’re really having trouble telling your story, remember that good old STAR method:

    • Situation. Start by giving context. Briefly explain the time, place, and relevant characters in your story.

    • Task. Next, tell the interviewer your role in the story, whether it was a task assigned to you or some initiative you took on your own.

    • Action. Now comes the juicy stuff; let the hiring manager know what actions you took in response to the situation and your task. Interviewers are interested in how and why you did something just as much as what you did, so spell out your thought process when possible.

      This is where you showcase your skills, so try to think of actions that align well with the job you’re applying for.

    • Result. Finally, explain the end result of your actions. Your focus should always be on what value you contributed to the company, not bragging about your personal accomplishments.

      Note that while the result should always be positive, some behavioral interview questions specifically ask about negative situations. In these cases, finish by discussing what you learned from the experience or how the project could have been improved.

Behavioral Interview Questions Tips

Follow these tips before and during the interview to help ace every behavioral question thrown at you:

  • Prepare for common questions. It’s impossible to prepare for all of the most common interview questions. But behavioral questions are easier to prepare in one sense; they all fall into a handful of basic categories. For example:

  • Prepare stories. Now that you have a set of general types of questions, think of an impressive work-related story to go with each. These answers shouldn’t sound memorized, but it’s good to jot down bullet-points for each story to make sure you’re stressing the most important elements.

  • Read the job description carefully. Before you go into the interview, and perhaps before you even start preparing stories beforehand, read the job description closely. Highlight action verbs in one color and adjectives in another. Then, think of ways to naturally incorpoate those sorts of qualities and behaviors into your answers.

    For example, if a job description emphasizes strong time management, you might change the emphasis of one of your stories to how well you planned and executed time frames, rather than the results of that project.

  • Be positive. Some behavioral interview questions (many, actually) will have you discuss negative situations, like conflicts or mistakes. Take accountability when appropriate (without making yourself look too bad) and never blame a former coworker or superior for a bad result.

    The hiring manager might have to work with you, and even recruiters don’t want to add a team member who’s constantly throwing other people under the bus. Instead, focus on the lessons you’ve learned and improvements you’ve made.

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Example Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers

Essentially, a behavioral interview means being asked a bunch of open-ended questions which all have the built-in expectation that your answer will be in the form of a story.

These questions are difficult to answer correctly specifically because the so-called “correct” answers are much more likely to vary compared to traditional interview questions, whose correct answers are typically more obvious and are often implied.

Behavioral interviewers are likely to ask more follow-up questions than normal, while giving less of themselves away. They want to hear you talk and react to every opportunity they give you, because the more you talk, the more you reveal about yourself and your work habits.

And that’s okay. The takeaway here shouldn’t be that “the hiring manager wants to trick me into talking, so I should say as little as possible.”

The real trick with this kind of question is to use the opportunities you’re given to speak very carefully — don’t waste time on details that make you look bad, for example, unless those details are necessary to show how you later improved.

In addition to these general techniques interviewers might use on you, here are some common questions you might be asked during a behavioral interview:

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to take a leadership role on a team project.

    As a consultant at XYZ Inc., I worked with both the product and marketing teams. When the head of the marketing team suddenly quit, I was asked to step up and manage that deparment while they looked for her replacement. We were in the midst of a big social media campaign, so I quickly called toghether the marketing team and was updated on the specifics of the project.

    By delegating appropriately and taking over the high-level communications with affiliates, we were able to get the project out on time and under budget. After that, my boss stopped looking for a replacement and asked if I’d like to head the marketing team full time.

  2. Can you share an example of a time when you disagreed with a superior?

    In my last role at ABC Corp., my manager wanted to cut costs by outsourcing some of our projects to remote contractors. I understood that it saved money, but some of those projects were client-facing, and we hadn’t developed a robust vetting process to make sure that the contractors’ work was consistent and high-quality. I brought my concerns to him, and he understood why I was worried.

    He explained that cost-cutting was still important, but was willing to compromise by keeping some important projects in-house. Additionally, he accepted my suggestion of using a system of checks to ensure quality and rapidly remove contractors who weren’t performing as well. Ultimately, costs were cut by over 15% and the quality of those projects didn’t suffer as a result.

  3. Tell me about a time when you had to work under pressure.

    My job as lead editor for The Daily Scratch was always fast-paced, but when we upgraded our software and printing hardware nearly simultaneously, the pressure got turned up to 11. I was assigned with training staff on the new software in addition to my normal responsibilities. When we were unable to print over a long weekend while the new printing hardware was being set up, I wrote and recorded a full tutorial that answered the most frequently asked questions I’d been receiving over the previous week.

    With a staff of 20 writers, this really cut down on the need for one-on-one conversations and tutorials. While management was worried we wouldn’t be able to have the writers working at full capacity the following week, the tutorial was so effective that everyone got right on track without skipping a beat.

  4. Can you describe a time when you had to motivate an employee?

    When I was the sales manager at Nice Company, we had a big hiring push that added six sales reps to my team in a matter of weeks. One worker in that bunch was working a sales job for the first time ever, and she had an aversion to cold calls. While her email correspondence had fantastic results, her overall numbers were suffering because she was neglecting her call targets.

    I sat down with her and explained that she should try to incorporate her winning writing skills into her cold calls. I suggested following her normal process for writing an email to cold calls; research the company and target and craft a message that suits them perfectly. She jumped at the idea and starting writing scripts that day. Within a couple of weeks, she was confidently making cold calls and had above-average numbers across the board.

  5. Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work.

    When I landed my first internship, I was eager to stand out by going the extra mile. I was a little too ambitious, though — I took on too many assignments and offered help to too many coworkers to possibly juggle everything. When I was late with at least one task every week, my coworkers were understandably upset with me.

    After that experience, I created a tracking system that took into account how long each task would realistically take. This method really helped me never make promises I couldn’t keep. After that first month, I never handed in an assignment late again.

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More Behavioral Interview Questions

  1. What have you done in the past to prevent a situation from becoming too stressful for you or your colleagues to handle?

  2. Tell me about a situation in which you have had to adjust to changes over which you had no control. How did you handle it?

  3. What steps do you follow to study a problem before making a decision? Why?

  4. When have you had to deal with an irate customer? What did you do? How did the situation end up?

  5. Have you ever had to “sell” an idea to your co-workers? How did you do it?

  6. When have you brought an innovative idea into your team? How was it received?

  7. Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision without all the information you needed. How did you handle it?

  8. Tell me about a professional goal that you set that you did not reach. How did it make you feel?

  9. Give an example of when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with. How/why was this person difficult? How did you handle it? How did the relationship progress?

  10. Tell me about a project that you planned. How did your organize and schedule the tasks? Tell me about your action plan.

class="fancy">Final Thoughts

Behavioral interview questions aren’t usually isolated. That is to say, you won’t usually find yourself in “The Behavioral Interview.”

They could be sprinkled into your very first interview, or you might not hear any of them until you’ve almost got your job in the bag.

You might have an entire interview made up of just these sorts of questions. Maybe you’ll hear only one.

Either way, behavioral interview questions are less of an overwhelming strategy than they are a specific tool that a hiring manager has at their disposal.

It’s true that some hiring managers prefer them while others avoid them, but as we said, a lot of that ultimately comes down to personal philosophy. There are a lot of weaknesses to asking only behavioral questions, though, so the best hiring managers out there know to mix them in with the more straightforward, future-focused traditional interview questions.

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Author

Ryan Morris

Ryan Morris was a writer for the Zippia Advice blog who tried to make the job process a little more entertaining for all those involved. He obtained his BA and Masters from Appalachian State University.

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