9 Most Common Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers
(Original article by Jeff Haden, Inc.)
“If you’re an interviewer and like to ask behavioral interview questions, you’ll like the following list of behavioral interview questions. And if you’re a job candidate trying to prepare to answer behavioral interview questions at your next job interview, you’ll love the matching list of behavioral interview answers.
Even though most interviews include at least a few of the most common interview questions, and even if the candidate is asked to answer one or two unusual interview questions (like these), the answers can seem a little too rehearsed and a lot insincere.
That’s one of the problems with asking opinion-based questions. Say you ask, “How important do you feel honesty and integrity is in the workplace?” How else do you expect the candidate to answer that question?
So, most interviewers mix in at least a few questions that are designed to elicit facts, not opinions. Since you can’t rely on what candidates say they will do, you can learn a lot from things they have already done — while not always the case, the past is at least a fairly reliable indicator of the future.
How do you do that?
First ask one of the following behavioral interview questions. Then follow up; ask questions so you can fully understand the situation the candidate describes, determine exactly what the candidate did (and did not do), and find out how things turned out.
And keep in mind follow-up questions don’t need to be complicated. Keep it simple:
- “Really? So what did she do?”
- “What did she say?”
- “What happened next?”
- “How did everything work out?”
All you have to do is keep the conversation going, since a great interview is really just a great conversation.
Here are some of the most common behavioral questions interviewers ask, and ways to answer them:
1. “Tell me about the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the past six months.”
The goal is to evaluate a candidate’s reasoning ability, problem solving skills, judgment, and possibly even willingness to take intelligent risks.
Bad answer: No answer. Everyone makes tough decisions, regardless of their position. My daughter worked part time as a server at a local restaurant and made difficult decisions all the time, like how to deal with a regular customer whose behavior constituted borderline harassment.
Good answer: Made a difficult analytical or reasoning-based decision. For example, wading through reams of data to determine the best solution to a problem.
Great answer: Made a difficult interpersonal decision or, better yet, a difficult data-driven decision that included interpersonal considerations and ramifications.
Making decisions on the basis of data is important, but almost every decision has an impact on people as well. The best candidates naturally weigh all sides of an issue, not just the business side or the human side.
2. “Tell me about a major mistake you made, and what you did to correct it.”
The goal is to evaluate how a candidate deals with errors, takes responsibility, and works hard to learn from mistakes. (After all, everyone makes mistakes — it’s what you do about those mistakes that matters.)
Bad answer: “I really can’t think of anything.” Please. The only way to have no answer is to never have done anything. The same is true for, “I do everything I can to double-check my work and ensure I don’t make mistakes.” While that sounds good… nope. That’s like saying, “My biggest weakness is that I care too much.”
Good answer: The candidate takes responsibility for the mistake and does what is necessary to correct it. Of course that’s what everyone should do, so don’t give the interviewee too much credit for doing what he or she is supposed to do.
Great answer: The candidate took responsibility for a major mistake, worked hard to correct it, and took steps to ensure it would never happen again — or at the very least to minimize the chances. Great employees see the past as training: It doesn’t define them, but it does inform their decisions and actions going forward.
And they apply that same thinking to the people around them. Great candidates realize that other people make mistakes, too — what you do afterwards is what counts.
3. “Tell me about the last time a customer or co-worker got upset with you.”
The goal is to evaluate a candidate’s interpersonal skills and ability to deal with conflict, especially in a professional setting. Make sure you find out why the customer or co-worker was mad, what the interviewee did in response, and how the situation turned out both in the short- and long-term.
Bad answer: The interviewee pushes all the blame and responsibility for rectifying the situation on the other person.
Good answer: The interviewee focuses on how they addressed and fixed the problem, not on who was to blame.
Great answer: The interviewee admits they caused the other person to be upset, took responsibility, and worked to make a bad situation better. Great employees are willing to admit when they are wrong, take responsibility for fixing their mistakes, and learn from experience.
Remember, every mistake is really just training in disguise–as long as the same mistake isn’t repeated over and over again, of course.
4. “Tell me about a time you knew you were right, but still had to follow directions or guidelines.”
The goal is to evaluate a candidate’s ability to follow… and also to lead.
Bad answer: Found a way to circumvent guidelines “because I know I was right,” or followed the rules but allowed his or her performance to suffer.
Believe it or not, if you ask enough questions some candidates will tell you they were angry or felt stifled and didn’t work hard as a result, especially when they think you empathize with their “plight.”
Good answer: Did what needed to be done, especially in a time-critical situation, then found an appropriate time and place to raise issues and work to improve the status quo.
Great answer: Not only did what needed to be done, but also stayed motivated and helped motivate others as well.
In a peer setting, an employee who is able to say, “Hey, I’m not sure this makes sense either, but for now let’s just do our best and get it done” is priceless.
In a supervisory setting, good leaders are able to debate and argue behind closed doors and then fully support a decision in public–even if they privately disagree with that decision.
5. “Tell me about the last time your workday ended before you were able to get everything done.”
The goal is to evaluate a candidate’s commitment, prioritization skills, and ability to communicate effectively.
Bad answer: “I just do what I have to do and get out. I keep telling my boss I can only do so much, but he won’t listen.”
Good answer: Stayed a few minutes late to finish a critical task, or prioritized before the end of the workday to ensure critical tasks were completed.
You shouldn’t expect heroic efforts every day, but some level of dedication is important.
Great answer: Stayed late and/or prioritized — but, most important, communicated early on that deadlines were in jeopardy. Good employees take care of things. Great employees take care of things and make sure others are aware of potential problems ahead of time just in case proactive decisions may help.
Obviously there are a number of good and great answers to this question. “I stayed until midnight to get it done” can sometimes be a great answer, but doing so night after night indicates there are other organizational or productivity issues the employee should raise. I may sometimes be glad you stayed late, but I will always be glad when you help me spot chronic problems and bottlenecks.
6. “Tell me about a time you needed to motivate a co-worker.”
The goal is to evaluate a candidate’s willingness and ability to be an informal leader, a great sign of leadership potential.
Bad answer: The interviewee has never tried to motivate a co-worker. “I didn’t feel like that was my place,” is understandable answer, but is also a sign that the candidate is unwilling to step past defined roles. (“I’ll show I can do the job before I have the job” is the approach most great employees take.)
Good answer: The interviewee offered encouragement. That’s a nice start. But here’s what is better.
Great answer: The interviewee offered encouragement… and also a helping hand. Words are great, but actions are greater. If a co-worker has fallen behind and is struggling to find the spark to keep going, pitching in is the perfect way to provide encouragement and support.
Plus, freely providing a helping hand is a sign of an outstanding team player.
7. “Tell me about a time you had to raise an uncomfortable issue with your boss.”
The goal is to evaluate whether a candidate is willing to be candid and open when it’s a lot easier to remain silent. Plus it’s a nice way to evaluate how well a candidate “manages up,” something that great employees typically excel at doing.
Not so great answer: “I’ve never done that.” Why isn’t this a bad answer? Some employees haven’t been in a position to need to raise an uncomfortable issue. And certain bosses are the last people you want to talk to about problems that they may be causing.
Good answer: The candidate raised an issue about a process, a procedure, another department… something that won’t make the boss defensive.
Great answer: The candidate raised an issue that could make the boss get defensive: Something he has done, or said, or should be doing…
Once during a meeting an employee asked me about potential layoffs. After the meeting an employee came to me and said, “I don’t think your answer went over well. You gave them the company line but I think they expect more from you.”
He was right.
Great employees have a feel for the issues and concerns of those around them, and are willing to step up and ask questions or raise important issues when others hesitate.
8. “Tell me about a goal you achieved.”
The goal is… well, the goal of this one is obvious.
We’ll skip the bad answer, because those are obvious.
Good answer: The interviewee was given a goal, was given (or created) a plan, and followed the steps required to achieve it. (Graduating from college is a good example; while certainly not easy, the steps are laid out for you and there are plenty of people to provide assistance along the way.)
Great answer: The interviewee chose her own goal, created her own plan, followed the steps required to achieve it… while adapting to the roadblocks, challenges, etc. that naturally popped up. Like Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Great employees are able to not just plan well but also react well.
9. “Tell me about a goal you failed to achieve.”
The goal is to evaluate how the candidate deals with adversity, disappointment, and failure. (Plus, sometimes knowing when to give up is as important as knowing when to start.)
Bad answer: “I always achieve the goals I set. I don’t give up until I do.” Mhm.
Good answer: The interviewee was given a big goal, or possibly set that goal himself, didn’t achieve that goal… and takes responsibility for not having achieved that goal. In short, the candidate doesn’t push the blame on others, or the situation, or the economy, or a lack of… well, a lack of anything external.
Great answer: The interviewee set a huge goal, didn’t achieve that goal, takes responsibility for not having achieved the goal… and not only takes responsibility but also learned from the experience: About himself, about what to do next time, about what motivates him, about what is truly important to him…
Most of the successful people I know have failed dozens of times. That’s one of the reasons they are so successful: They try difficult things, and regardless of how it turns out, they come out the other side smarter, more skilled, more experienced…. they’re better for the experience.
The Bottom Line
As with any other interview question, evaluate a candidate’s answer on the basis of your company’s culture and organizational needs.
Few candidates can bluff their way through more than one or two follow-up questions. Turning the interview into a fact-based conversation helps you identify potential disconnects between the candidate’s résumé and his or her actual experience, qualifications, and accomplishments.
And you’ll have a much better chance of identifying a potentially great employee, because a great employee will almost always shine during a fact-based interview.”