Behavioral Interviews Aren’t About Right or Wrong Answers

But that doesn’t mean you should wing it.
Tatum Hunter
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 9, 2021
Tatum Hunter
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 9, 2021

During an interview for a front-end manager role at Apple, somebody asked Collab Lab co-founder Andrew Hedges to share how he’d handled a challenging situation at a former job. Hedges gave what he thought was a good answer. 

“I thought I’d handled it pretty well. I was trying to present it all positively. But the person interviewing me said, ‘Okay, so you didn’t really deal with it directly,’” Hedges said. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, I guess you’re right.’” 

Hedges got the job (and went on to hire 14 Apple developers himself). But that interview moment highlights what makes so-called behavioral interview questions so hard: There’s no obvious right answer. 

Common Behavioral Interview Questions

  • “Tell me about a time you had an interpersonal conflict at work.”
  • “Tell me about a time you led a project.”
  • “How would you approach this problem?”
  • “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
  • “Tell me about a time you had to manage competing priorities.”
  • “Tell me about a time you had to tell someone no.”
  • “Tell me about a project or accomplishment you’re proud of.”
  • “Have you ever failed at something? What happened?”

Traditionally, we’ve thought of behavioral interview questions as the ones assessing how a candidate acts on the job — as opposed to their skills, like building algorithms or spinning up React elements. Now, that definition is evolving.

That might be because the line between “hard skills” and “soft skills” is so tough to parse. Plenty of technologists work closely with teammates all day long — developers pair or mob program, data scientists collaborate with product, marketing and sales teams. Why act like skills and behavior are somehow separate, or that emotional skills aren’t skills in themselves? 

It also might be because sizing up candidate behavior poses so many problems. Being good at acting hirable in front of strangers and being good at writing software are two entirely different games. And, whenever “likability” gets conflated with behavioral skills, it opens the door to biased interview processes

It’s all a lot to process. That’s why Robin Stenzel, chief people officer at candidate-experience platform Outmatch, takes a simpler approach:

“A behavioral interview question is talking about your experiences,” she said. “Behavioral interviewing gets [the candidate] to tell a story about the experiences [they’ve] had.”

In that case, these questions are less about reading your interviewer’s mind and trying to act how they want, and more about framing an experience you’ve already had. Can you chat about past work experiences without panicking, lying or acting like a jerk? You’re already halfway there. 

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How to Prepare for Behavioral Interview Questions

You can’t “prepare” your personality or style of working. But you can prepare stories that illustrate how you approach problems and opportunities. 

“When I interview people, what I try to do is have them give me a concrete story,” Hedges said. “So instead of talking in the abstract, like, ‘Oh, I would do this,’ tell me about an actual thing that happened.”

It’s a good idea to go into your interview with three to five minute-long stories ready to tell. Think back on your past roles, and look for examples of:

  • Transferable situations. Have you dealt with any scenarios or used any skills that will likely come up in this new job?
  • Your biggest successes. Why was this success notable? How did you contribute?
  • A workplace failure. When did things not turn out as expected? What did you learn?
  • Conflict with a colleague. Why did you butt heads? Did someone compromise, or did you agree to disagree? What skills did you use to resolve the conflict?
  • Competing priorities. How did you decide where to focus your energy? How did you communicate about that with your team? What strategies did you use to manage your time?
  • Your personal strengths and weaknesses. Everybody has them. What are you best at, and what’s hard for you?

Rehearse your stories out loud until you’re comfortable telling them, and trim any unnecessary details. 

This preparatory work is just as important if you’re interviewing for a technical position. Think about builds that went well and ones that went poorly, and practice telling stories about them, emphasizing what you learned from the experiences. If you find it hard to wrestle technical projects into clear stories, practice by writing them out first. 

Michael Brown, a senior software engineer at Microsoft, recommended blogging as a way to get more comfortable communicating about your code. Visit Stack Overflow, find a question you can’t answer, research it, answer it and blog about it.

“The net benefit is that A, you’re building up your Stack Overflow reputation. B, you’re learning new skills, and C, you’re improving your communication abilities,” Brown said. “I recommend that people try and do just one answer a day, even if it’s just on weekdays.” 

Finally, as you tell stories and talk through projects, take the opportunity to help your potential new employer envision you in the role. Draw parallels between your past experiences and the role at hand as often as possible. And — as long as you don’t act as if you’ve already been hired — feel free to talk about the team as if you’re part of it.

“Don’t talk about ‘I versus you,’ as if you’re still outside,” Brown said. “Include yourself in the company when you’re talking. This is a subtle shift, but I think it definitely helps get them to visualize you being there. ‘How do we handle sprints? How do we address process issues? How do we integrate feedback on the process?’”

 

Common Behavioral Interview Questions

Tell Me About a Time You Had an Interpersonal Conflict at Work.

This question is not an opening to disparage your coworkers or explain why you were in the right. But you also don’t have to pretend you’ve never disliked or disagreed with a coworker.

Instead, spend less time describing the conflict itself and more time explaining what you learned from it. Did you notice some room for growth in your communication style? Did you pick up a strategy for handling tough situations or competing interests? 

“People want to know that you’re going to take accountability,” Stenzel said. “It’s about being honest about what went wrong, but then I think you’ve got the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what I learned from that. And here’s what I did the next time, or here’s what I would do in that situation again.”

Always share how you adjusted your behavior in response to the conflict. For example: Maybe you failed to set expectations for a project, and as a result, you and a client miscommunicated. Going forward, you adjusted the cadence of your communication and sent out status updates once every week. (Of course, sometimes a conflict isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t have to adjust your behavior. But those stories don’t add much value during an interview.) 

Often, interviewers will ask specifically about a time you had to tell someone no, Brown said. If you’re a developer, that might mean you had to tell a product manager a particular project wasn’t doable in the given timeframe. If you work in customer-facing roles, maybe you had to tell a client one of their requests wasn’t included in their current contract.   

As you tell these stories, emphasize your ability to prioritize the most important work and gracefully navigate imbalances of power — whether that’s between a developer and a PM or a customer success rep and a big account. 

“You might be in a tough customer-facing role. So they’ll ask, ‘How do you deal with an irate customer asking for the world, and have a difficult conversation where there need to be compromises or some cuts to what they’re expecting?’” Brown said. “When there is an imbalance of power, how do you make that an honest discussion?”

 

Tell Me About a Time You Led a Project.

Even if you’re not interviewing for a manager role, be ready to talk about a time you took charge.

“Every job has a leadership component,” Stenzel said. “We work in organizations that are much flatter than what they’ve been before. We’re all expected to take leadership opportunities, even as individual contributors. So I want to understand how someone thinks about that, and how they’ve done that in the past.”

Maybe you’ve never led an entire team or organization, but you’ve likely been responsible for certain portions of group projects, events or initiatives. Schoolwork, neighborhood groups, extracurricular activities, parenthood, volunteer work and DIY projects all create opportunities to demonstrate leadership. Choose an example — and talk about what went well, what didn’t go well and what you learned from the experience.  

 

How Would You Approach This Problem?

Lots of technical interviews involve talking out loud through coding problems. Take your time, and explain your thought process step by step. Even if you don’t land on the correct solution immediately, the interviewer will get a glimpse into how you think. 

Be aware: Some interviewers purposefully present candidates with extremely difficult or impossible technical questions. Sentiment on this is split: Technical employees are guaranteed to encounter problems they can’t solve, some people reason. So it’s important to know how candidates react. Other people think it’s mean.

Wherever you fall, the right move is to admit when you don’t know the answer to something. It’s better than fibbing, and a good hiring manager won’t make you feel embarrassed. 

The wrong move is to get mad. 

“I’ve had people I was interviewing get angry with me,” Hedges said. “I had a person kind of complain, like in math class, ‘I’m never going to use this, right? Why would I ever use this?’ Because they didn’t know the answer. They hadn’t seen that pattern before or something. So they got a little mad in the interview, which is not the kind of person I would want on my team.”

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behavioral interview questions
Answer in two or three sentences, then ask your interviewer if they’d like more detail. | Image: Shutterstock

What to Look Out for

Rattling Off a Memorized Answer

If your answer came verbatim from a guide like this one — abort. 

“Big questions like, ‘What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?’ A lot of people say, ‘Oh, here’s how you answer that.’ But doing a canned answer on those is bad. And it’s very evident,” Brown said.

As a rule of thumb: If you know the general content of your answer and a few bullets you’d like to hit, that’s good. If you’ve memorized the words you’d like to say, it will likely come off stiff.

 

Overtalking

Just like in salary negotiations, talking too much during an interview puts you at a disadvantage. At worst, hiring managers dismiss overly chatty candidates out of fear they won’t work well with others. 

Instead of launching into a diatribe, respond to behavioral questions in two or three sentences, Stenzel advised. Then, pause, and ask your interviewer if they’d like more detail, or if your answer sufficiently addressed their question.

Stenzel once coached an engineer who was so excited about past projects, she’d give too much detail during interviews. It works better to give a high-level overview to demonstrate your knowledge and experience — then give the hiring manager the option to hear more or move on.

“A lot of times, I’ll ask somebody a question in an interview. And then we’re 40 minutes into the interview, and the person is still answering the question,” Stenzel added. “They haven’t even taken a breath.”

 

Oversharing

“Professionalism” is a tricky standard: Different companies have different expectations for workplace decorum, and the rules don’t always apply to everyone equally

This can make sharing personal details during your interview a tough decision to navigate. Some interviewers ask questions like, “Tell me about an obstacle you’ve overcome” — that seems to call for some candor. But sharing too much or getting too chummy with interviewers could hurt your chances. What to do?

Stenzel recommended practicing behavioral questions ahead of time with a friend. That person can tell you whether you spoke too informally or, conversely, failed to showcase what makes you unique. 

“Other people always have this great insight into ourselves that we sometimes miss, like, ‘You didn’t even touch on the fact that you’re a great relationship-builder,’” she said.

In the end, stick with the tried-and-true advice of keeping your answers as short, honest and to the point as possible. But know that the vibe during your interview will likely reflect the vibe at the company more broadly.

“I wouldn’t try to hide anything that you’re not good at hiding every day when you come to work,” Hedges said, acknowledging that being “fully yourself” at work is often a function of societal privilege.

 

Responding Too Quickly

This isn’t “Jeopardy!” — feel free to take a second to think before you answer. 

“It’s totally fair in an interview to just say, ‘Wait, let me think about that for a second.’ And just take a second to compose yourself and take a couple deep breaths,” Hedges said. “What happens in interviews a lot is that people are so stressed, they forget all the things that they know.” 

Silence is okay. So is pausing to ask a clarifying question or contextualize your answer. 

For example, if an interviewer says, “Tell me about a time you failed,” you might stop, consider what experience you’d like to talk about, and then set the interviewer’s expectations: “Okay, I’m going to talk about a time a project I worked on did not meet its measurement goals. Will that answer your question?” 

 

Not Sharing Credit

Failing to mention your collaborators when you talk about successful projects can come off as arrogant. While it’s important that candidates acknowledge their strengths and take responsibility for their careers, Hedges said, it’s a red flag if employees care so much about getting ahead that they stop caring about the success of the people around them. 

“I really screen a lot for ego,” he said. “The team is going to be able to do more than any individual is going to be able to do, and [the team] needs to be able to get along, even when things aren’t going well. People who have really stood out for me are the ones who already come in with that mindset — where it’s not about their success, it’s really about the team’s success and the company’s success.”

 

You’re Allowed to Ask Behavioral Questions, Too

The interviewer is trying to decide if they want to work with you, but you’re also evaluating whether you want to work with them.

“I’ve been on a few dozen interviews, and I’ve never had someone ask me, ‘What are the challenges you’re facing?’” Brown said. Hedges mentioned that in the hundreds of interviews he’s conducted, only two candidates have ever asked him about his management style.

Asking plenty of questions also helps you cross-check the claims your interviewer is making. Stenzel talked about a time she finished an interview with a hiring manager who stressed his company’s friendly culture, only to leave the interview room and watch him walk past dozens of employees without saying hello. 

Seize the opportunity to learn about the person who may become your manager, or, if you’re speaking with a recruiter, about the company culture. Here are some behavioral interview questions to ask your interviewer, according to Brown, Hedges and Stenzel.

  • What are the external pressures on this team?
  • From the company’s perspective, does this team cost money or earn money?
  • When this team has a new project to tackle, how do you start? How do you know when it’s finished?
  • Is this role a backfill? Why did the last person leave?
  • Why is this role necessary or important?
  • How much support would I receive in this position, and from whom? What would that support look like? 
  • Can you tell me about a moment you were particularly excited about this company’s culture?
  • Can you tell me about a time something didn’t fit this company’s culture? What happened next? 

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