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How to Handle a Behavioral Interview

Behaviorally based interviewing is also known as situation based interviewing or the "STAR" method (Situation, Task, Activity, Result). Basically, it means the interviewer will ask you to describe examples of things you've done on the job, and most of the interview questions will begin with something like, "Tell me about a time when you... ". The interviewer then listens and probes for details about the who, what, when, where, how, etc. in the examples you provide.

Asking what a person did do in certain job situations is different from traditional interviewing methods that ask people what they would do. The behavioral method is used because what a person did do tends to be more predictive of what they will do in the future, in comparison to what they say they would do.

For example, if a candidate was asked what he would do if he had a conflict with a colleague, he might say that he would confront his coworker to discuss the matter. However, when asked to describe what he did do during a recent time he had a conflict with a colleague, the same candidate might share an example in which he ignored the conflict in hopes it would fade with time.

How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

Behavioral interview questions are usually designed to match the competencies needed for success in a role (e.g., problem-solving skills, project management skills, relationship building skills, etc.). For instance, if a job requires a person to think strategically, an interviewer might ask them to describe a recent time when they had to define a business strategy.

With that in mind, it's useful to identify what competencies a job requires so you can prepare accordingly for related interview questions:

Sometimes formal job descriptions will list the competencies required for a position. If not, Human Resources or the hiring manager for the role will likely share the competencies if asked. It's certainly OK to ask about the competencies required for success in a role when applying for a position.

You may also be able to discern the required competencies by closely reviewing the job description and "reading between the lines", so to speak. In my experience, most job competencies fall into the three broad categories: Thinking (e.g., problem-solving, innovating, etc.), Results (e.g., accountability, time management, etc.), and People (e.g., networking, influencing, etc.). Those categories can be used as a guide for deciphering the competencies underpinning a job description. For example, while reading the job description, you could ask yourself, "What thinking-related competencies seem needed for this role?", "What results-related competencies seem needed for this role?", and so on.

Once you've identified the competencies required for a job, the next step is to recall instances from your work experience when you evidenced those competencies:

Recall examples that occurred within the last year or less (the more recent, the better). They'll be easier to remember and share details about. Further, behavioral interviewers usually require examples to be relatively recent.

Avoid getting caught-up in trying to identify the biggest, best, or most elaborate example you can think of. I've interviewed many people who had difficulty giving examples because they didn't feel the example was sophisticated or spectacular enough to share. Behavioral interviewers tend to focus more on the how than the what in the examples you provide. For instance, you probably take a similar approach to delegating work whether a project is large or small, but it'd be easier to convey the details of the smaller project when the interviewer asks.

Don't let an undesired outcome keep you from sharing what would otherwise be a good example. I see this often, for example, when asking people to describe a time when they had to influence upward (e.g., gain buy-in from senior leadership, change their boss's opinion, etc.). They hesitate to share an example because they were unsuccessful at influencing upward. However, once they share the example it's clear (to me as a behavioral interviewer) that their approach to influencing was sound, despite senior leadership choosing not to buy-in.

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