Illustration of man looking into telescope at night to find out the answer to "What is the STAR format," and spotting a star with the letters on it: ST for situation or task; A for Action; and R for result


What Is the STAR Format? Here's Your Complete Guide

For better interviews, providing better feedback, or more effective performance discussions, you need to ask, "What is the STAR format?"

Publish Date: August 8, 2018

Read Time: 5 min

Author: Bruce Court

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by Bruce Court

What is the STAR format?

The stars have helped us to successfully navigate and tell time since at least 1000 BCE. And for the most part, the stars have been very helpful in getting us to our intended destination.

The STAR format, however, is something else.

The need for navigating by the stars has largely gone away. Now, anyone with a cellphone can discover exactly where they are. They can also easily figure out how they can get to where they need to be without looking up at the sky.

However, there's another type of STAR. It's been guiding leaders to successful outcomes in interviews, in providing feedback, and in performance management. And it's been around since the mid-1970s. In today’s business environment, this particular STAR is proving to be more valuable than ever for another very important reason. So, what is the STAR format? Now's the time to find out!

What is the STAR format, exactly?

STAR is an acronym for a format that helps guide discussions around feedback. It's also valuable for gathering information from interviewees during the selection process.

The letters “ST” represent the Situation or Task that provides the context. They answer the question about why a person did or, in some cases, did not do something.

“A” is for Action explaining what was done (or not done), as well as how it was done.

“R” stands for Result, revealing what was the impact of the Action (or inaction).

When this type of STAR a leader has has a complete picture of the why, what, and how, along with an outcome. With this picture, she can make an informed decision about how well someone has performed based in the past. This removes the need for an educated guess or relying on instinct.

Past behavior predicts future behavior. The path toward future behavior is illuminated by the STARs gathered during an interview. A good way to start collecting STARs is to have prepared behavioral questions. The questions should focus on the requirements for success in the position. When combined with the interviewers’ ability to determine what information the candidate has shared in his responses to the questions and diligent follow-up by the interviewer, multiple STARs will be available to predict the likelihood of success in his next assignment.

Ideally, every candidate answers every planned question with a STAR, but sometimes they don’t—or won’t. Candidates may offer a partial STARs where one or more components of the STAR is missing; or they respond with a false STAR, which lacks real substance.

What's a false STAR?

False STARs contain vague statements, opinions, or speculation. For example, you can spot a false STAR when response starts with, “I usually,” “We often,” or “I would like to.”

Let’s say you ask a candidate to describe how he works with his colleagues in engineering. He responds, “I usually had no problems with the engineers. Some of my colleagues did, but I generally got on well with them.” What does that tell you ? What’s missing?

Later, you ask how the candidate dealt with resistance from a co-worker. He says, “The next time I get that much resistance, I would ask my manager to help me handle it.” What past behavior is the candidate describing? What do you know about what they did or didn’t do?

How is the STAR format like shopping for groceries?

The list of requirements for success in a position is like a grocery shopping list. The STARs are the equivalent of collecting the required items off the shelves and placing them into the cart.

At the end of the interview the interviewer can measure the STARs alongside the description on the shopping list to determine if the behavior measures up to what is required in the position, and whether it is acceptable. Weighing all the evidence (STARs) leads to the hiring managers making an informed decision.

What is the STAR format? It's also a way to give feedback

Another way for the STAR to guide a leader is when she is giving feedback. Effective feedback needs to be timely, balanced, and specific. Feedback can be positive, focusing on what was done well. Or it can be developmental, pointing the way toward a more effective approach and a better outcome.

The STAR components serve as a reminder of how to give positive feedback; however, the acronym changes slightly when we’re talking about developmental feedback. The feedback provider describes the STAR and then offers an Alternative Action and Alternative Result. This could start out like, “If you had asked them for their ideas.” Or, “I think you would have had more engagement.” Even better, ask the recipient of the STAR if he or she can offer an Alternative Action and Result. This will increase the individual’s receptivity, buy-in, and commitment to the alternative behavior and outcomes.

STARs are also valuable for performance management

What is the STAR format? It also has applications The third long-standing application of STAR is as part of a performance management process. Performance discussions can prove challenging when participants lack specific data. The words, “I think that …” are likely to lead to a challenge such as “Give me an example,” or “How do you know?”

It’s hard to measure performance without having the facts. Quantitative data is easier to find than behavioral data. This is where STARs come in. You can discuss both positive and negative behaviors by focusing on the facts. You can also minimize emotional reactions during a difficult performance conversation. An example might sound like this:

S/T (Situation/Task): “You’ve been working on the team that’s implementing our new supply chain software.”

A (Action): “In the stand-up meetings you are constantly interrupting the conversation and refusing to accept other people’s ideas.”

R(Result): “Everyone has shut down, and, to make matters worse, the implementation is at least three months behind schedule.”

How the STAR format helps mitigate bias

We may not want to admit it.  But we’re are all biased. The STAR format helps to keep these biases in check. For example, if you are prone to making assumptions without the evidence to support it, with STARs you have evidence to determine whether your assumptions are accurate, or not; and you’ll have solid evidence supporting that conclusion.

Here is an illustration of how the STAR holds my personal bias in check. I believe that all people working in a certain profession are not very good (and I’m being diplomatic!). A few years ago, I was interviewing a candidate with five years’ experience in this profession. Fortunately, I had been trained in behavioral interviewing. So, I had an interview guide with pre-planned questions designed to solicit STARs.

By following the process throughout the interview, I gathered multiple STARs. Later, when I reviewed my notes and evaluated the STARs against the job requirements, I was surprised. The candidate was a fantastic match, and the other interviewers agreed. This person joined the company and was tremendously successful.

Without having the STARs to guide me, this person might not have been hired. And we all would have been worse off. You can’t take the bias out of the person. But by following the STARs you can take the bias out of the process.

If you have STARs supporting your processes, you can be inclusive by consistently considering all potential candidates or employees. You gather factual evidence. And it becomes even stronger when there are multiple data points. In the end, you will be giving fair ratings for every person. You just need to trust in the STARs to guide you to the correct decision.

So, what is the STAR format? Now you should have the answers you need to begin applying this invaluable tool!

Learn more about how we incorporate giving feedback into our program to build core leadership skills.

Bruce Court works with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy. He’s experienced in all aspects of strategy development and execution. Outside of work Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen, visiting places on their “bucket list.” He loves eating at great restaurants, and “sampling” good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.