Tell Me About a Time You Succeeded with a Behavioral Interview Question

August 10, 2015 at 12:15 PM by Rob Stevenson

Behavioral Interview Questions

Describe a situation when you…

Give me an example of…

Tell me about a time you…

Behavioral questions have worked their way into the standard interview starter pack, and it’s easy to understand why. When you’re looking for indicators of future performance, it makes sense to draw upon specific examples from the past. There’s a teensy snag, though. These questions are either oddly specific, forcing the candidate to mentally sift through years of professional experience in an instant, or they're simply too vague to be truly illuminating.

Interviews Behaving Badly


"Tell me about a time you persuaded someone."

Here's one inherent problem with these type of questions: in the above example you’ve given away the correct answer. The candidate needs only reference a single interaction, and they’ve satisfied the question. Anyone, regardless of stature, can recall a time they convinced someone, be it their boss, their co-worker, a fellow student. What does this really tell you about a candidate? How they’ll articulate their point of view in a group setting? Do you place such a high premium on this rhetorical technique that you’ll devote several minutes to an interview covering it?

If you’re after how someone truly responds in various office-likely scenarios, candidates will have a clear self interest to tell you they’ll react in the most amicable fashion imaginable. To get an accurate response to this line of questions, you’re far better off posing them to the back-channel references I’m sure you’re already planning to contact.

I spoke to our Head of Talent about these types of questions, and he claims the only one he’s had success with has been asking interviewees to recall a time they failed recently, and following up by having them explain how they dealt with that failure. According to Vivek, this reveals two things:

1. What do they care about? What do they view as a failure?

2. How do they handle adversity?


So Here’s The Situation

Instead of creating a simulation that someone only needs to drop themselves into to answer successfully, get a little creative and ask them to find a solution to a problem you propose. The point here is to get situational instead of behavioral. Situational questions are preferable because they can tell you everything a behavioral question can, with the added bonus of being curtailed to the specifics of your organization.

Vivek also shared with me a situational question he poses to senior sales candidates:

"You’re handed a territory of 500 potential accounts. How do you go about breaking into those accounts? Walk me through the process you take to be successful."

This one works because it’s hard to fake and encourages interviewees to get down to brass tacks. If they can tell you, in detail, how they would go about attacking a problem, odds are they’ve successfully tackled something similar in the past.

At the very least, my dear recruiters, take some time to re-visit the behavioral questions you use and consider what they’re really telling you about your candidates, and whether they might be better posed to references. Then, consider crafting some situational questions that will actually put them in the shoes of the role.

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