Interviewers often use “behavioral interview questions” in job interviews today to learn about how job candidates behave.
The reason employers ask behavioral questions is to understand how the job candidate handles different — often difficult — situations, demonstrating their “soft skills.”
Behavioral questions typically start with, “Tell me about a time when you…” or “Describe how you have handled…” or “Give me an example of…” or even “Walk me through…”
While these questions may feel like a trap when you are asked, that’s really not the employer’s intent (most of the time).
They are looking for insight into the job candidate’s behavior beyond the questions traditionally asked (read Smart Answers to Interview Questions for those).
What Employers Seek When They Ask Behavioral Questions
Your answers to these questions should demonstrate your personal qualities and illustrate those “soft skills” often relentlessly claimed on resumes.
Behavioral interview questions typically focus on common problems faced at work. Employers are looking for examples that you have demonstrated key soft skills like these:
- Problem-solving, initiative, judgement
- Handling stress, resilience, adaptability
- Analytical skills, creativity
- Persuasiveness, negotiation
- Attention to detail, planning and organizing
- Integrity, reliability, motivation
- Team building, leadership, management
To be well-prepared, think about situations where you had to put these abilities into action, and make sure they are listed on your interview checklist. Your “stories” about these experiences can provide concrete answers to behavioral interview questions.
5 Smart Strategies to Answer Behavioral Questions
These are not questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. behavioral interview questions are open-ended, so you can take them in a direction that presents you in the best light.
Behavioral interview questions are asked not only to see how well you perform tasks, but also to see the strengths you demonstrated to overcome obstacles, deliver quality results, and interact effectively with people.
Tell your stories to answer these questions. Provide examples of real work situations where you were successful — where you had a challenge and you overcame that challenge:
Analyze the job description, and have your “stories” ready — examples of difficult situations from your past jobs, how you successfully handled those situations, and, possibly, what you learned from the experience.
Focus on your achievements and successes, when possible, and don’t “trash” anyone even when describing a time you have failed (or not been perfect) or when you were dealing with someone else’s failure.
Avoid the trap of talking too much. Answer the question concisely, and then ask if your answer provides enough insight. Expand your answer if requested, staying positive.
Although it is very tempting, don’t create fantasy stories. Reality maybe discovered during the reference-checking part of the hiring process, and kill the opportunity.
Don’t reveal any of your current (or former) employer’s confidential information, particularly if you are interviewing with a competitor. (While a competitor will appreciate the information, they will know that they cannot trust you.)
If the question asks you to provide an example of a personal failure, give the example, and then follow up with what you learned as a result and how you have avoided making that mistake again.
For candidates who “own the interview,” like I’ve always instructed, this is just another chance to pull from your interview checklist and cite examples of projects you’ve worked on that showcase your fit for the job.
Example Answers for Common Behavioral Interview Questions
Many of the behavioral questions follow a pattern where each have certain soft skills in mind.
A key to handling these questions is to anticipate which skill sets they will likely ask about and have answers ready.
I have provided some popular skills along with related questions or thoughts for you to consider as you develop your answers:
Tell me about a time when you handled a challenging situation.
Did you have an irate client? Did the boss leave you in charge? Did you need to find compromise among your team?
On Project XYZ at Company 123, I was unexpectedly thrust into a team lead role and had two team members who hated working with each other.
So I designed a project planning meeting that would get the three of us talking about best ways to approach the project and leverage each of their strengths. The results were excellent as we delivered the project on time and on budget.
This answer showcases skills/traits of leadership, adaptability, strategic planning, getting consensus, teamwork, among others.
Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and how you handled it.
Did you leverage problem-solving skills? Did you need to act humbly? Did you need to rebuild trust? How do you avoid making that mistake again?
Last year, I made a terrible mistake while adding financial information to our company’s bookkeeping system. It lead to a shortfall in available funds at a critical time. I was actually the one who discovered my mistake first. When I did, I was able to figure out how it happened and what needed to be done about it.
With a plan in hand, I talked to my supervisor and asked that I be responsible for fixing the mistake and calling all effected parties required to remedy it, including our bank. Fortunately, this was caught soon enough that very limited impact occurred, and I was able to prove I was capable of fixing the problem myself.
As a result of that mistake, I developed a method to quickly do a final review and verification of the data before publishing it, added that step to our publishing protocol, and I haven’t made that mistake again.
This answer showcases skills/traits of honesty, taking ownership, good communication, sound accounting practices, loyalty, problem-solving, analytical thinking, quick thinking, and ability to deliver bad news, among others.
Tell me about a time when you (or your boss) made an unpopular decision that had to be executed by your team.
Did you need to work hard to get buy-in or to motivate the team? Did people threaten to quit? What did you learn from the experience?
I was working on a project last year that fell behind schedule. My boss asked me to mandate to the team that they work overtime until the project was completed.
I knew this would be a very touchy request as the team had been working hard already and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Plus, the schedule slippage was not their fault, but actually our vendor’s.
Before I shared the request with the team, I built a project plan on how we could “share the load” of the overtime hours. I also created a strategy on how to partner closer with our vendor along the way to ensure no more schedule slippages.
When I presented the request to the team, I included how we were going to get out of this stage as quickly as possible. Just as importantly, I shared how the company views our team as dedicated to the cause and willing to do whatever it takes.
I also made sure they knew we were not being blamed for the project delay, but instead, the company valued our contributions. I made a point to mention how the plan would affect the company’s bottom line, too.
Through this experience, I learned the importance of developing a detailed recovery plan, identifying and managing the key variables. Positively communicating that plan kept team morale high and made the project completion possible.
This answer showcases strategic thinking in several ways, both how to fix problems as they occur and how to effectively communicate while under high pressure. The focus on building consensus and teamwork also is evident when talking about how the team is viewed and allowing them to understand the tradeoffs.
Sharing all the facts and being open to direct reports is a quality many value in a leader, too.
Tell me about a time when you were in direct conflict with a peer and how was it resolved.
Did you resolve it using your own skills or was external help required? Why did the conflict happen in the first place? How would you avoid this conflict in the future?
I was working on a project last year with a colleague. Our internal client told us our solution was not adequate and we needed to start over. My peer blamed me for the failure even though the majority of the design ideas were his.
He was clearly upset about what had happened. In the past, I would have likely argued my point of being the minor player in the design, but I decided to “take the high road,” and just focus on what to do next.
Since he was still not thinking rationally about the direction to take, I took the reins subtly and started asking how could we address the aspects the client didn’t like by finding modifications or improvements.
I got his mind percolating again on the task, and we collaborated on several options and presented a new version we both agreed had the best chance of being successful.
Ultimately, the client was happy, and better yet, the working relationship was improved between us.
This answer showcases how one approaches a very touchy situation with grace and maturity. It also highlights how to move forward in tough situations, find consensus, problem-solve, and harness the power of team (going alone on the project was not an option).
As I said, many of these questions are asked to understand how you leveraged certain abilities (more than the actual outcome).
For another example of a tough behavioral interview question, read: Tell Me About a Time When You Failed. Find more answer examples at the bottom of this article.
The Finer Points on Answering Behavioral Interview Questions
Don’t feel you must immediately provide an answer.
Think about the question before you answer — which of the examples of your accomplishments would provide an answer to the question asked?
Ask for a clarification, if that would be helpful.
Or simply say something like,
That’s an interesting question. Let me think about that for a second…
Then, after a short pause while you gather your thoughts, use the strategies described below to answer the questions successfully.
Be sure to give enough details to make it clear that you are describing a genuine experience. When appropriate, use the same example to answer more than one of the behavioral interview questions.
Expect follow-up questions asking for clarification or requesting more details about the situation.
Throughout the process of answering these types of questions you will be slipping in the soft skills you leveraged (see my other article on discussing your Soft Skills during the interview).
The Bottom Line
Don’t be intimidated. Think of these questions as opportunities to share how you have succeeded in your work. Prepare by analyzing the job, determining both the hard and soft skills needed for the job, and then noting examples of how you have handled similar situations in the past, demonstrating that you have those soft skills.
More Exampls of Answers to Behavioral Interview Questions:
- Answering: Tell Me About a Time When You Failed
- Answering: Tell Me About a Time When You Were Successful
- Answering: Tell Me About a Time When You Motivated Someone
- Answering: Tell Me About a Time When You Convinced Your Boss
More Help for Succeeding in Your Job Interviews:
- Smart Answers to Common Interview Questions — how to successfully answer the non-behavioral interview questions
- Successful Job Interviewing: What Job Candidates Need to Know — my short, free ebook
- Interview Questions in a Post-COVID Pandemic World — asking and answering pandemic-related questions
- Job Interview Success Secret: Your Relevant Stories
- 3 Steps to Interview Success: Build Your Interview Checklist — essential interview preparation
- The S-T-A-R Method of Answering Interview Questions — a structure for your stories
- Guide to Writing Thank You Notes After a Job Interview
More About Different Types of Job Interviews
- How to Ace Telephone / Phone Screen Interviews
- Top Tips for Lunch Interview Success
- Ace Your Video Interview
- 12 Keys to One-Way Video Interview Success
- 5 Tips for Acing Your Video Interview
- How to Handle Speed Interviews
- How to Handle Panel / Group Interviews
- How to Interview for a Temporary Job
- Questions to Ask in Informational Interviews
About the author…
Job-Hunt’s Working with Recruiters Expert Jeff Lipschultz is a 20+ year veteran in management, hiring, and recruiting of all types of business and technical professionals. He has worked in industries ranging from telecom to transportation to dotcom. Jeff is a founding partner of A-List Solutions, a Dallas-based recruiting and employment consulting company. Learn more about him through his company site alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on LinkedIn and on Twitter (@JLipschultz).
More about this author…