One of the biggest mistakes you can make in an interview? Failing to answer a structured, behavioral question with a specific example. Unfortunately, it happens all too often.
To understand how to handle this prompt in an interview, let’s first examine the setting for the question and then the specifics of responding.
What is a structured interview?
At its most basic, it means that interviewers ask each candidate the same questions. That’s beneficial because it allows decision makers to compare answers. Thus, you can shine or flop a structured interview with your answer to a behavioral question.
What’s a behavioral interview question? A behavioral question asks a candidate to describe a situation they faced, the action they took, and the result they obtained. It’s most effective when organizations interview people for roles similar to ones they’ve held before.
Pioneered by organizational psychologists in the 1970s, behavioral interviewing was popularized by Laszlo Bock, a senior HR executive at Google, starting in 2013. He encouraged Googlers to abandon ineffective hiring techniques and use behavioral interviewing in combination with other, specific techniques.
You’re probably wondering how this type of interview affects you, the job seeker? Here are few tips to keep in mind if you encounter a behavioral question:
- Google has set an example for other companies, so anticipate your next interviewer may ask behavioral questions, as well.
- Understand that even though your interviewer asks you behavioral questions, they may not be trained enough to help you provide a strong answer.
- Even a well-trained interviewer gets exhausted trying to get candidates to give specific answers to behavioral questions. They don’t recommend candidates who exhaust them.
Here is one example of a behavioral question from recent interviews, conducted by my client, of two finalists for a senior role. One of the interviewers was assigned to ask the following: “Tell me about one or two people who have become more successful as a result of your coaching.”
The first candidate gave this general response: “I coach all of my direct reports. As a result, I promoted three people last year.”
The interviewer expressed frustration with the response to me and expressed their desire to move onto the next question. However, I encouraged them to give the candidate another chance.
He went with the following: “This is helpful general information, but we really want one or two specific examples. Can you tell us about a specific person who became more successful as a result of your coaching?”
The candidate mumbled a repetition of their original answer. They left the interview team with the impression that no one had become more successful as a result of their coaching.
Fast-forward to the second finalist, who was asked the same question on coaching success. They responded like this:
“I wanted to promote one of my direct reports into their first managerial role. To prepare them, I enrolled them in a managerial skills program and assigned them to lead a high-profile, five-person project. Over the course of the project, we met for 30 minutes each week to talk about administrative management and brainstorm their leadership challenges. I saw that they responded well to my coaching. Plus, the project came in on time and slightly under budget. As a result, I promoted them into a managerial role.”
This information gave the interview team confidence that the candidate was able to develop people, a critical performance element in the role under consideration. When they voted, they unanimously selected the second finalist.
So, what happened with the second candidate? Notably, they set themselves apart by hitting the following marks:
- They understood how to answer a behavioral question.
- The interview team didn’t need to be well-trained in behavioral interviewing to get the information they needed.
- The candidate didn’t frustrate or exhaust anyone on the interview team.
- The interview team was able to complete their questions for the second candidate because they didn’t chew up too much time on the coaching question.
- Unlike the first candidate, the second candidate provided hard evidence they have the coaching skills the position requires.
To accelerate your job search, be aware of the behavioral interview and be able to answer the questions with specific examples without help from your interviewer.
If I hadn’t been observing the interview described above, the interviewer would not have given the candidate a second chance. Further, the hirer would have chosen not to coach or offer guidance to the potential hire.
As a trainer and user of a behavioral interviewing methodology, I know how difficult it is for people to develop those skills. My initial training was a two-day, 16-hour seminar. Most of the participants left the training without the skills.
Beyond that, many organizations provide hiring managers with two- to four-hour trainings at best. I doubt anyone masters the skills that quickly. Combine that with the fact that most hiring managers don’t do many interviews and your interviewer may be wrestling with how to effectively assess you.
If you learn how to answer behavioral questions, there is a good chance you’ll be able to outshine most or all of your competitors in an interview process.
Donna Svei is an executive résumé writer and former retained search consultant and C-level executive.