Interview Series: How to Answer Behavior-Based Interview Questions

Behavior based interview

Chances are that you’ll be asked at least some behavior-based interview (BBI) questions on your next job interview. Along with personality testing, BBI seems to be the hottest trend in interviewing over the past few years.

You’ve heard BBI questions before. They start like this: “Tell me about a time when…”

The idea is past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. In other words, if they need to hire someone who makes easy decisions under pressure, and you can tell them a good story about a time when you were cool as the other side of the pillow, you just might get the job.

Here are the basics for answering a behavior-based interview question:

  1. Give a specific example from your past. Tell a real story. Do not talk in hypotheticals by saying things like, “I would handle the situation this way,” or, “Well you should start doing this.”
  2. Tell the truth. A good behavior-based interviewer will probe and probe and probe your answer. Probes are follow-up questions seeking further understanding, detail, or clarification. As an interviewer who uses BBI questions, I find I get to the good parts of the story after five probing questions. If you’re not telling the truth you’ll get trapped in your own web of lies by a good prober.
  3. You may take up to five minutes per answer, but get to the point ASAP and don’t ramble. When you’re done answering just stop talking, don’t repeat yourself. There may be a long awkward pause while your interviewer processes your answer or takes notes. Just keep quiet.
  4. Prepare good stories ahead of time using the following steps
    1. Read the job description.
    2. Look for things that sound like competencies like effective communication, decision-making, business acumen, strategic thinking, etc. There will probably be at least five competencies either explicitly listed or buried within the job description.
    3. Write down five stories from your past that illustrate a time when you used each competency. It’s not OK to use the same story twice.*

*In the future, keep track of your accomplishments by regularly updating your résumé so you have the stories there waiting for you when you need them.

Here’s how to structure an answer to a behavior-based interview question:

  • What was the situation you faced?

    • Don’t waste too much time here. Just a sentence or two to give them the minimum background they need to understand the rest of your answer.
  • What were the actions you took?
    • What was your specific role? It’s OK to talk about a team effort, but don’t forget to clarify what you actually did.
    • Why did you take those actions? What was your thought process?
  • What were the results of your actions?
    • Try to think of a time when you delivered abnormally awesome results.
    • What did you get a perfect score on during your last evaluation?
    • What was the best sale/project/account/whatever you were part of?
  • What did you learn?
    • How has this experience helped you since?

So here’s an example of a behavior-based interview answer:

Question: Tell me about a time when you collaborated with a cross-functional team of peers to achieve a business result you couldn’t have achieved on your own.

Answer:

Situation:

My wife and I were paying $1,200 per month for daycare, and we had an opportunity to get our son Jack into pre-school a year early. The catch was we had to get him 100% potty trained with no diapers within 30 days. He was already making some potty progress, but with only one month before the first day of pre-school he was still having daily accidents.

Actions:

First I reached out to the teachers at his existing daycare, and asked for extra attention for Jack. Second, my wife and I used our resources to identify a few proven methods of potty training. I took the lead on the bribery-by-M&M method, which reduced accidents to just a couple per week.

When school started, Jack had several accidents during his first few weeks, and we worried he would be expelled!

Our final step was to collaborate with Jack’s new teacher on the plan that ultimately worked. The teacher recommended we put Jack in the with older kids, the four and five-year olds, for a while to let him learn from his peers. I was worried about Jack leaving his friends, but the teacher assured me she had used this tactic successfully in the past. I listened to the potential benefits and risks and I approved the decision to move Jack to the big-kid class.

Results:

Within a few weeks Jack was 100% potty trained at school and he hasn’t had an accident since. He’s the youngest in the school by three months, and his potty training has saved us over $800 per month!

What did I learn:

Collaboration leads to better insights, more resources, and ultimately results that couldn’t have been achieved by working alone. I also learned a lesson in persistence and not giving up when faced with adversity.

OK, so it’s not a business story, but you get the drift. Just insert your own business story using the framework above.

BBI is an advanced interviewing technique, but the inside info I’m giving you here will put you ahead of almost all job seekers. You’ll even be ahead of some junior interviewers.

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