illustration of a woman interviewer sitting behind a computer interviewing a male interviewee with question marks in the air above them to show this blog is about understanding great behavioral interviewing questions, and answering: why use behavioral interview questions


Understanding Great Behavioral Interviewing Questions

Get tips for asking behavioral interviewing questions effectively, see example questions, and find out why behavioral interviewing is crucial for helping you make the best hiring decisions.

Publish Date: October 27, 2021

Read Time: 9 min

Author: Mark Smedley

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Behavioral interviewing questions have gotten a bad rap.

Despite being a key element of one of the most valid, evidence-based methods for gathering information to make a hiring decision, some people don’t like to use them. As someone who has trained hundreds of leaders in behavioral interviewing skills, I’ve heard all the objections. This is too much structure. I’ve got great intuition about people, so I don’t need this. It feels too scripted.

I’ve seen thought leaders on LinkedIn serving up hot takes about how behavioral interviewing removes the human connection from the interview. They say candidates have canned answers anyway, so what’s the point?

In a competitive labor market, it’s tempting to remove structure from the process in favor of speed.

So why should you use behavioral interviewing questions? Let me explain a little bit about what they are, why they work, and why I’d never dream of making a hiring decision without asking them.

What Are Behavioral Interviewing Questions?

Behavioral interviewing questions are used in structured interviews to get candidates to provide specific examples of their past job behavior. This is based on the premise that past behavior predicts future behavior.              

You may hear behavioral interviews called “STAR interviews.” And while the goal of behavioral interviewing is to gather a complete STAR (Situation/Task, Action, and Result), there’s so much more to it than that.

We shortchange the value and impact of behavioral interviewing by thinking it’s simply asking questions to get STAR answers. (This post is focused on behavioral questions, but you can read more about the entire behavioral interviewing process here.)

In addition, some people get behavioral interviewing questions confused with situational interviewing questions. While both focus on approaches to a specific scenario, behavioral interviewing differs in one important way. Behavioral interviewing focuses on what a candidate has done. In contrast, situational interviews ask hypothetical questions about what a candidate would do.

Asking about hypothetical scenarios is almost always less effective than behavioral interviewing. These questions lend themselves to answers that sound good but may not reflect the candidate’s actual style or approach. If your goal is to see whether a candidate has the knowledge about what to do, these questions are fine. But they won’t predict performance.

Additionally, a disadvantage to hypothetical questions is that the analysis of the candidate’s response is subjective. There’s no way to judge the outcome. But with behavioral-based interview questions, you can judge how effective the action was by the result or outcome achieved.

Why We’re Not Naturally Good at Sizing Up Other People

Most of us think we’re really good at sizing up other people. We trust our intuition to make quick decisions about others. But here’s the bad news: we’re actually not very good at it.

In Malcom Gladwell’s 2019 book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know¸ he describes some of the problems with our approaches to making sense of strangers. I’ll summarize two of them:

  1. We default to truth. This means that our default position is to expect others to be truthful. Only in the face of overwhelming evidence do we begin to doubt.
  2. We rely on transparency. Transparency is the belief that how people present themselves on the outside provides a reliable window to the truth of who they are.

Because we default to truth, we naturally struggle to assess the accuracy of what candidates share. I’d like to think that few candidates outright lie in an interview. But it’s understandable that they might stretch the truth, omit unflattering details, or creatively shape their answers to cast themselves in the best light.

And because we expect transparency, we overestimate our ability to read others and accurately interpret their spontaneous, off-the-cuff responses. Someone who is outgoing and gregarious will seem like a great person to join the company. Someone who is a bit timid or nervous might make you think they wouldn’t be a team player. But how can we be sure that how people present themselves on the outside—in a high-stakes situation like an interview—really shows us who they are?

Benefits of Asking Behavioral Questions

This is where behavioral interviewing questions save us from ourselves. By asking probing questions about a candidate’s past behavior, we get them to tell us stories about themselves. Storytelling is one of the most essential forms of human communication. By listening to their stories, we can see how they’ve behaved in a variety of situations and draw better conclusions about their skill and fit.  

When you ask behavioral questions in a skillful way, candidates feel better about the interview process. Why? They have a chance to tell the story of their job-relevant experiences. The process feels organized and fair.

Candidates are frustrated by interviews that don’t feel focused. It’s hard to know what someone is looking for by asking where you see yourself in five years or the dreaded “tell me about yourself.”

Above all, the way you interview sends a strong message to candidates about the kind of organization they’ll be joining. Using behavioral questions shows candidates that your company (and you) use a thoughtful, deliberate approach. And it shows that you value their time.

Common Behavioral Interview Questions

A behavioral interview question often starts with phrasing like “Tell me about a time when…” or “Think of a situation where you….” Here are some examples of behavioral questions to assess how well someone adapts to change.

  • Tell me what steps you have taken to convince people to accept a change that they originally resisted.
  • Describe a time when you helped a group of employees understand why a specific change was necessary.
  • Describe a time and the strategies you used to implement a major change in your team.

You should make your behavioral interview questions as specific to the role as possible. Remember, you’re trying to gather examples that are similar to what the candidate will experience on the job.

Also, having highly relevant behavioral interview questions helps with internal stakeholder buy-in. If you encounter resistance to using behavioral interviewing, it might be a sign that hiring managers think the questions are too generic. If the behavioral interview questions don’t address the challenges of that job, managers will be less likely to follow this approach.

So if someone applies for a sales position, “Tell me about the most challenging sale you ever made. What obstacles did you have to overcome?” is a much better question than “Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge at work.”

Tips for Conducting a Behavioral Interview

Having the right behavioral questions is just one piece of the puzzle. This method reaches its fullest potential when you’ve structured the entire interview process correctly. Make sure you have the following in place:

  • Be sure interviewers are trained in behavioral interviewing. There is an art and science to this. Anyone can ask the prepared questions, but a skilled interviewer will expertly navigate the more challenging and nuanced aspects of the process.
  • Have multiple interviewers ask behavioral questions. This will allow you to see the full picture. Don’t overdo it though. It typically doesn’t take more than three or four interviews to get enough data.
  • Consider the fairness and legal defensibility of your process. Put structure in place to ensure you’re asking each candidate the same questions and avoiding questions that are not job related and may introduce bias.

How to Assess Candidate Responses in a Behavioral Interview

So how do you evaluate a candidate’s responses? First, make sure that each response is behavioral (i.e., was a story about their past behavior) and a complete STAR.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting an incomplete response. If they describe what sounds like an effective action, we may check the box and move on to the next question. But did they share a result? By doing a little probing, you may find the action wasn’t as effective as it sounded. Or perhaps it was even more effective than it sounded.

The real skill in behavioral interviewing isn’t asking the prepared questions. It’s asking smart follow-up questions. If you don’t gather all elements of the STAR, you lose out on critical information.

It’s common for the candidate to get off track and provide general statements instead of a specific example. Train yourself to listen for phrases like:

  • I would…
  • I believe…
  • I generally…

These are all clues that what the candidate is about to say is not about specific past behavior. They are about to share a general statement, belief, or opinion. But you can still use good follow-up questions to get to behavioral examples.

Tips for Asking Great Follow-up Questions and Evaluating Interview Data

If a job candidate says, “I believe all members of the team should have a voice in decisions that impact them,” I would respond with, “Great! I believe that too. Tell me about a time you gathered input from multiple team members to make a decision that affected them.”

Another tip is to avoid accepting “we” statements at face value. If a candidate talks about something “we” did, ask them what their role was.

Finally, the most overlooked part of evaluating the candidate’s responses is to integrate data across all interviewers. This is so much more than sending an email that says, “She seems great!” or “I don’t think he’s a good fit.” Each interviewer should come together and share the most relevant examples they gathered. This allows the hiring manager to get the most data to make the best decision.

In Conclusion:

Behavioral Interviewing Questions Are Just the Start

Having the right questions is essential to an effective behavioral interview, but it’s only the start. All the behavioral questions in the world won’t save you if managers aren’t trained to gather complete STARs, avoid accepting opinions or hypothetical responses, and conduct the interview for a great candidate experience.

Behavioral interviewing questions help us navigate around our unconscious biases and avoid hiring the good-on-paper candidate whose past behavior may be a total disaster. At a time when everyone is moving fast to snatch up the best talent, behavioral questions allow you to move fast and smart.

Check out our webinar on how to leverage behavioral interviewing to hire the best candidates in a tough labor market.

Mark Smedley is a Leadership Advisor for DDI. He is passionate about helping organizations hire the best leaders, build their leadership bench strength, and make leadership development a way of work in a fast-paced world.

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