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How to Ask Behavioral Interview Questions (and Answers to Listen For)

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Written by

Kerry Wang

CEO, Co-Founder

Published

February 19, 2020 6:24 PM

Categories

Best Practices

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Interviewing a candidate for the first time can feel a bit like speed dating. There are lots of hopes and expectations packed into a tight 30-minute session that is peppered with small talk and a few awkward pauses. 

Even though 30 minutes is a short period of time to gauge candidate fit, it takes longer when you factor in the prep and debrief time required for each interview. If your hiring process doesn’t provide concrete ways to compare and contrast candidate suitability, you can spend hours interviewing candidates and still be left spinning your wheels. 

When I’m interviewing a long list of candidates, I try to establish a comfortable interview style as a hiring manager. Even if you aren't in the habit of interviewing too often, I strive to do better than asking a candidate to rattle off that overly rehearsed list of their biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses.

The best way to give your candidate the spotlight during the interview is to use behavioral interview questions. These open-ended questions focus on past work experience and work situations that allow candidates to relay their reflections in real-time. 

The 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trend report confirms that “the number one way companies assess soft skills is by using behavioral questions.” 

Consistency is key with this style of interview. Prepare to ask each candidate the same questions to reduce bias that may potentially creep in if you’re improvising as you go.

To help you get the most out of your time, let’s look at specific examples of common behavioral interview questions and answers in four main categories: communication, growth potential, professionalism, and motivation.

Communication

Communication-centered behavioral interview questions prompt the interviewee to answer questions about ways they interface with colleagues, clients, or customers in specific scenarios. When evaluating the answers, I tend to focus on the candidate’s thought process behind how they communicated, the steps they took address conflict, and the outcome of the situation. 

I try to guide a deeper discussion without jumping in to save them or talking over awkward pauses.

Questions: 

  • “Give me an example of a time you led a difficult client conversation. What was the outcome?”
  • “Describe a time where you had to build consensus with a colleague who had a differing perspective from yours. What steps did you take to build understanding?”
  • “Tell me about a time you had to communicate confidential information within the organization. How did you go about it?”

Good answers: Listen for solutions-oriented thinking and ownership over the result. Their answer should involve a truly challenging situation where their thought process was guided by logic. It’s valuable to know that they can find a middle ground in the midst of conflict. 

A result that focuses on what was best for the business over personal feelings is ideal. Bonus points if they demonstrate the traits of a team player, like building consensus, active listening, and respect.

Red flags: Any sign of emotional distress may let you know that the candidate has a hard time separating business instincts from personal feelings. Blame assigned to the client or fellow teammates is an indication of a lack of business maturity and problem-solving ability.

This isn’t a red flag, but it's perfectly normal for candidates to clam up around tricky topics that involve stressful situations. You can help them along by using drill-down questions for clarification like: 

  • "What did they say?" 
  • "What happened next?" 
  • "How did you feel about that?

You would be surprised how much a person will open up when guided along with these questions.

Growth Potential

Small plant growing

You’re going to learn the most about a candidate's coachability (and humility) with types of behavioral interview questions and answers that focus mostly on the way they tell their story. Keep an ear out for any perfectionism or a fixed mindset about their skills as they are common enemies to growth potential. 

Questions:

  • Tell me about your first job, what was your greatest accomplishment?”
  • “Tell me about your most recent hobby. Who is your mentor or guide?”
  • “What did you learn about yourself in your last role?”

Good answers: Candidates who can reflect on their early career or previous roles and articulate the lessons are keepers. It shows that they are optimistic about their growth. It also gives you insight into their past, present, and future career goals. 

I love to know more about who my team is outside of work and what kinds of things excite them. This teaches me how open they are to learning new things and how I can motivate them through the process. 

Red flags: If the interviewee can't clearly articulate how they've built on their skills, or they undermine their own ability, it won't bode well for their on-the-job confidence. If they skirt around the more complex self-reflection questions and focus on hard skills like, “I learned I am great at building Excel spreadsheets,” clarify using drill-down questions.

Professionalism

Behavioral interview questions and answers are great for sussing out whether a candidate has the acumen to be in the same room as clients, customers, investors, or members of the C-suite. Even if the job doesn’t require daily interaction with these groups, you want to know that they can put a professional foot forward at that all-team event or customer appreciation day.

These questions will help lead you to the right candidate who demonstrates their priorities are in alignment with your business.

Questions:

  • “Tell me about a time your favorite brand went above and beyond with their customer service. What was memorable about your experience as a customer?
  • “Share with me an example of the best presentation that you ever led. What made it a hit?”
  • “Give me an example of a time you used an unconventional approach to solve a difficult client or customer problem. Were there any unanticipated results?”

Good answers: A thoughtful customer service anecdote shows that they can think outside their direct position and consider the bigger picture. Companies often rely on their whole team to think up ways to enhance customer success, even if it’s outside of their job description. 

Interviewees should select appropriate examples that mirror your company values — this information is easy enough to find with a quick scan of pretty much any company website. 

Finally, their response to unconventional approaches they have taken tests their aptitude for creative problem-solving and risk-taking within a professional context.

Red flags: If the candidate answers positively framed questions with negativity, put a star next to that. There is no place for cynicism on a team, nevermind in a professional job interview. Answers should remain relevant and demonstrate business maturity. If anecdotes are seemingly unrelated or the candidate is unable to draw logical conclusions relating to the role, it translates to a lack of preparedness.

Motivation

A new hire’s values will reveal how you can best motivate them to succeed while they’re under your wing. Behavioral interview questions will help you understand what’s important to them without pointedly asking and getting a rehearsed reply. That's the beauty of this interview style — it allows unique expression that goes beyond the surface. 

Questions:

  • “What was something your favorite manager did to keep the team motivated?”
  • “In your experience, what kind of conditions hamper productivity in the workplace?”
  • “How do you respond when you are dissatisfied with your work?”

Good answers: Two-way feedback is a business building block, so I create that expectation from the start. I want team members who are confident to relay their needs and share their suggestions for improvement without reservation.

Despite the potential for answers to take a negative turn, it's about a job applicant's ability to vocalize their needs maturely. This will tell you about their levels of self-awareness and whether you can meet their expectations. 

Some examples of mature language include: 

  • “I work best when …”
  • “I learn about myself by …”
  • “The most useful feedback I receive is framed in a way that makes me feel …”
  • “I communicate that I am disengaged by …”

Red flags: This is an easy one to spot because toxic candidates will take the bait and run with the negativity. Answers that harp on the mistakes of former employers or managers with little personal accountability or solutions are big warning signs. The individual's ability to motivate themselves in the role or ask for what they need is key.

Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers Are Useless Without This Skill

Behavioral interview questions and answers: Man juggles on beach

You can have the best behavioral questions ready to go, but if you aren't actively listening, you may miss the answers.

I know that when I have so many balls in the air during the job interview process, it’s a challenge to stay present. Here are some simple practices I use to listen well during interviews:

  • Angle your body toward the candidate to show you're listening and maintain eye contact in between note-taking.
  • Limit distractions by silencing your phone and facing away from windows.
  • Avoid interrupting. Instead, jot down any questions you have for them on a piece of paper, not your phone.
  • Use clarifying questions to confirm your understanding and wait for them to pause before asking them.
  • Offer empathetic feedback statements to demonstrate that you are hearing them.
  • Note nonverbal cues and body language as they are speaking. Three telltale areas to watch are their face, their posture, and what they are doing with their hands. A candidate will show signs of engagement by smiling, having strong posture, and resting their hands calmly in their lap.

Get Unique Insight Into Your Candidates 

Conducting job interviews can be tough and time-consuming. Behavioral interview questions and answers will help you understand communication style, growth potential, the candidate’s professional capacity, and the best ways to motivate them. This interview style leads to a more informed onboarding process and a stronger team fit. 

Prepare key questions in advance to use consistently with each candidate to compare and contrast their suitability more objectively. You can use these interview questions in your next interview to help you make the best hiring decision for your team.

Further Reading

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