Behavioural Questions in Job Interviews

I’ve spent a fair bit of time interviewing people over my career, and last year I spent a lot of time being interviewed or preparing for interviews, including the behavioural interview. Behavioural interview questions are designed to help the interview understand how you work. They usually begin with;

  • How did you…
  • Describe a situation when…
  • Give me an example of…
  • What did you do when…

They can feel hard to answer and unpredictable, in fact they’re neither.

Answering Behavioural Questions

There is a way to answer the questions that is easy to prepare for, simple to remember, and relatively quick to deliver. It’s the STAR method.

Situation; Outline the situation that you were acting in
Task; The outcome you needed to achieve
Action; The action or actions you took
Result; The outcome, be clear on what your actions contributed to the outcome, don’t be afraid to take credit for your work. Also be prepared to answer that the result wasn’t as expected if that’s the truth, but then clarify why you didn’t achieve the result you expected.

Here’s how I developed a STAR response to a potential question

Question

Describe a decision you made that was unpopular and how you handled implementing it.

Situation

I was responsible for implementing a new tool to replace old personnel directory, the new tool was better in many ways but did not have all the same functionality. Two groups were unhappy about this decision.

Task 1: Secretaries wanted their contact information connected to their bosses’ profile
2: A group wanted to search by partial phone number, the last four digits
Action 1: We could assess this as valuable for bosses, secretaries and useful for all staff, we implemented this change as a priority
2: We looked at the data and found this was a rare search, we decided not to implement it and explained our decision
Result 1: Secretaries happy, this was a good change and a requirement we’d missed.
2: There were some complaints about our decision for about 10 days. No reaction beyond that.

Usually I only use one situation per response, but in this case I choose to use two as one shows that where other people raise good reasons to alter my view I will change, and the other shows that I can hold my ground when there are no good reasons to change.

Most of my responses were from work situations, but you can use your experience from volunteering organisations, University groups, schools, and your personal life.

Creating this response ahead of an interview means that you will be prepared when the question comes up during the interview, and it will be easy for you to recall the situation and retell the story to the interviewers.

Predicting Behavioural Questions

It might seem that there are an infinity of possible questions an interviewer might ask, but in reality the interviewer is looking for someone to match the job requirements so my first source of behavioural questions is the job vacancy notice. The examples below are all from current vacancy notices for various communications roles on LinkedIn.

Job Vacancy Notice Behavioural Question
A track record of rapidly expanding the reach of social media accounts How did you grow the reach of one or more social media accounts?
Identify and act upon communications issues whilst keeping senior management informed How have you managed the communications around a crisis or a company issue?
Manage relations with external contacts and key stakeholders within the business Describe a situation where you managed the conflicting demands of different stakeholders.
Leading cross-functional project teams to design, deliver, test and successfully roll-out multi-channel projects. Give me an example of a project you led, that delivered across multiple channels.

Note that the question on the right doesn’t include all of what they have said they were looking for in the vacancy notice, but by analysing and planning your responses you’ll cover much more of what they are looking for.

For each item on the vacancy notice that points to activities in your new role design questions and STAR method responses.

I did this for all the vacancies I applied for, and I researched online for common behavioural questions and found multiple lists that cover more generic job requirements such as handling conflict, managing deadlines, learning new skills and motivating others. I made a list with all the questions I came up with and filled in my STAR method responses to create a tool that helped me in my job search.

I then practised telling those stories sometimes to myself (yes, I do talk to myself) and sometimes with a friend, until I could tell the stories in a natural way. I really do recommend practising with someone, it’s hugely helpful.

Tricky Questions

You can predict the behavioural questions and plan your answer, when you’ve practised your responses a few times you’ll be able to adapt your response for various ways interviewers pose the question. But there are a couple of ways you could still get tricky questions.

If you don’t have a situation that matches a behavioural question for the job, say what you would do, for example;

How have you managed the communications around a crisis or a company issue?

I have not had to do this in previous roles, based on my experience in customer care I would …

If you have used one situation to cover more than one Behavioural Question, and you get asked both, refer to your previous answer and take the opportunity to expand on it, for example

Give me an example of a project you led, that delivered across multiple channels.

As I mentioned regarding the Gemini Project, I lead a project that developed multiple forms of content for a range of audiences, let me explain further how we used those for different channels…

If the result wasn’t as good as expected, you can still use the example, but explain why the result was different. For example;

How did you grow the reach of one or more social media accounts?

Our Twitter account had few followers, and our goal was to build those numbers to half a million by year end. We began by building a strong content calendar, and increasing the rate of tweeting from once a day to 4-8 times per day, and repeating content for different timezones. We then ran a series of targeted paid campaigns aimed at increasing our follower numbers, with each sprint we analysed what had worked and adjusted the campaign. At the end of the year we made it to 417,000 which was a great result, but short of our goal. We severely underestimated the amount of paid advertising we would need to commit to, and it was only a late increase in spending that got us over the 400,000 mark.

Preparing well for interviews means you can present yourself in your best light, showing your expertise and demonstrating effective communication skills. That means doing the work; planning for your interview, thinking how you will respond, and practising those responses.

Here’s my list of Behavioural Interview Questions, feel free to download it and adapt it for your own job search. Fill in your own responses and find a friend to practice retelling your responses to. Let them go off script – after all your interviewer is working from their own script.

Good luck!

 

Image: Banner Question Mark  |  geralt  |  CC0 1.0

 

Improving Performance Reviews

Raise your hand if you like performance reviews! No-one?

It turns out that even people who get good reviews don’t like having them, and the workload on managers adds up to a lot of hours across a largish company. One estimate based on time spent puts the cost at 120,000 USD for 500 people. Yet it’s doubtful that we see that value out of the review process.

It’s about that time of the year when many managers are plunged into the black hole of performance reviews. It’s a fun time, particularly if you work in digital, to see how good your guesses about the year’s activities were.

There are a number of widely recognised problems with most performance management systems;

  1. Annual planning cycle, given the pace of change annual planning is too slow, and many performance systems are resistant to mid-year alterations.
  2. Annual assessment, some systems force a mid-year coaching meeting, but it’s not the frequent/continuous feedback that’s needed to create the improvement you’re looking for.
  3. Forced grading, because the results are connected to pay increases and/or bonuses managers are forced, at least in large companies, to grade to a curve in order to manage total costs. I have had an HR advisor tell me that it wasn’t possible that everyone in my team was excellent. As a perceptive team member once said “the way to maximise your income is to be the best person in a lousy team.
  4. Looks backwards, doesn’t usually result in improved performance for the future.
  5. Time spent, it’s a significant amount of time from managers and employees, with questionable value delivered. Across a company it adds up quickly.
  6. Subjective, however hard you try as a manager to be objective you’ll always get some subjectivity in the review, particularly on ‘softer’ goals your perception impacts the review out of balance

Most companies recognise the issues and there’s a lot of research backs up the concerns; a few have started trying new ways of performance management. I think the biggest issue is that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We call it performance management, which sounds like managers will be working to help their team members improve their performance, but the reality is that it’s a tool for figuring out how to distribute a pool of money used to reward those who perform the best. Some companies try to separate the two conversations, but they remain linked in people’s minds. In one team many years ago the manager disclosed to all his direct reports how much money he had to reward them and offered options on how to distribute it. Unsurprisingly the team voted for each team member to have an equal share of the money.

We know that money is not in itself motivating yet most companies continue to with the fiction that performance reviews and ‘merit increases’ are connected to improving performance. Some companies have the courage to challenge this.

  • Accenture announced last year that they will get rid of 90% of their performance management process and replace it with something giving feedback in real time with a much simplified questionnaire to managers.
  • GE, the initiator of the stacked ranking, has changed their model for performance management to one that focuses on their goals.
  • Adobe have altered their “stack and rank” system into something that requires managers to give regular feedback at check-ins, with one rewards check-in at the end of the year to discuss targets.

In these examples the companies are trying to build a practice of ongoing feedback – rather than the annual review. Which makes sense. In some cases they’re also trying to separate the feedback/coaching process from the assessment for bonus process. Both are steps forward. If there is training and support for managers evolving their feedback/coaching skills it could lead to improved performance.

dilbert

For all the pitfalls of your company’s performance review system chances are you’re stuck working with it, so here are some helpful hints and resources;

For Managers

Prepare; with a copy of the team member’s expected goals go through your notes from your 1-on-1 meetings over the last year. Check with other managers for any joint projects they’ve been on. Ask the direct report for input. (If you haven’t been having 1-on-1 meetings for the previous year set them up now).

Assess; look for what was done well, areas where you saw the person step up, skills gained – have examples. Think about what didn’t work well, limits in knowledge or behaviour that have been exposed – have examples. Prepare for questions on next steps, training needs, and salary changes.

Discuss; Be honest about achievements and failures, give feedback on 1-3 things they really need to improve.  If the person reacts with any emotion or defensiveness understand that it’s not about you, remain firm and focused on helping them improve their performance.

Resources;
Manager Tools – amazing series of podcasts taking you through all aspects of performance reviews.

Performance Review Examples – ten tips explaining some of the pitfalls.

For Employees

Have a copy of your own goals, go through it and assess your performance. Be honest about what goals were met and your responsibility, be honest about what goals were not met and your responsibility. Note down any achievements that weren’t somehow listed or planned, things you particularly enjoyed, and assemble any feedback you’ve had from peers.

Looking into next year think about your goals, your training needs, projects you’d like to work on. If they’re aligned to the company’s goals a good manager will try to include those in the planning for the coming years.

Be prepared to give your manager feedback on how they can help you be more successful. I firmly believe that’s the manager’s number one task.

9 Things to Tell Your Boss at Your Next Performance Review.

Image: 42-15529695  |  Meridican  |  CC BY 2.0