Interviewing Tip #2: Learn how to Answer Behavioral Interviewing Questions

In Hiring Tip #5: Ask Behavior-description Interview Questions, I suggested that hiring managers learn how to ask behavioral interviewing questions. Behavioral questions assume that people’s behaviors don’t change; that people reapply those behaviors to new situations. If you’re looking for a job, learn how to answer these questions.Behavioral interviewing questions ask you questions about how you’ve worked in the past:

“Tell me about a problem you solved.”
“Tell me about a project where the people worked in different locations.”
“Tell me about a time you didn’t have all the requirements.”

These are all behavioral interviewing questions, and they’re also very open-ended. If you hear questions like these, try this when you formulate your answer:

  1. Describe the context: “On such-and-so project, at Company X, I had these problems.”
  2. Describe the situation without blame, and without discussing the solution (yet): “We had problems in defect tracking, in scheduling, in architecture. On the other hand, we didn’t have any problems in teamwork, configuration management, or testing.”
  3. Describe your role and what you did: “When I realized our defect tracking system couldn’t take attachments, I created a directory on our intranet. I sent out email pointing to a readme. In the readme, I suggested a technique for naming the files so if you knew about the problem number, you could find the attachments.”

If your interviewer is highly skilled at asking behavior description questions, they’re easier to answer:

Question: “Did you ever want more time in the schedule?”
Answer: “Oh yes.”
Question: “Oh, did that happen any time [at your last company]?”
Answer: “Yes.”
Question: “Tell me, what happened. What did you do?”

Here the interviewer has helped you set the context. Your job is to describe the problem without blaming anyone and to explain your role in the solution: “Originally, the project manager planned the project using 2 senior engineers. That worked for the overall schedule, but wasn’t as successful for the details of each step in the schedule. We got to design freeze and realized we didn’t have design freeze. I suggested to the PM that we break into smaller groups and replan the whole rest of the project. The PM suggested instead of the entire project, we just plan this phase, and plan to replan again. That worked really well.”

When you answer behavior description questions, your job is to tell the story of your role in that situation. Make sure you describe the whole picture (project context, problem situation) before you discuss your role. That way you look as if you understood the big picture and your specific actions. Even if you didn’t understand the big picture and your specific actions when you were in the situation, understanding the big picture at the end is helpful. We all tend to repeat behaviors we think are successful, whether those behaviors actually were successful. You’ll learn about your behaviors, as well as your potential employer.

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