Success with Behavioral Interviews

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Interviewing for a job can be nerve racking. Even experienced professionals can have a hard time demonstrating their capabilities and expressing themselves effectively, given the tension of an interview situation. The best way to reduce your anxiety and increase your interviewing proficiency, is to eliminate the element of surprise by anticipating the questions you'll be asked, and preparing some answers.

During the interview, you should expect to hear the interviewer ask questions that start with the phrase, "Tell me about a time when." Or she might ask something in this format, "We often have projects where the scope of work changes mid-stream, requiring a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. Can you tell me about a project that you worked on where the scope of work kept changing? How did you handle it?" These kind of queries, open-ended questions asking you to describe how you behaved in previous situations, are "behavioral interviewing questions".

Behavioral interviewing questions are the outgrowth of two commonly held theories. The first is that most people succeed or fail in a position not because of their technical knowledge, but because of their behavior and soft skills. The second holds those behaviors rarely change over time. By describing how you've behaved in similar situations in the past, you unveil how you'll continue to behave under similar circumstances in the future. You'll also demonstrate your oral competencies, your ability to think on your feet, and your ability to handle pressure.

Be a S.T.A.R.

Preparation starts with knowing the types of behaviors the interviewer is likely to inquire about. The list often includes behaviors such as:

* Adaptability

* Analysis

* Attention to Detail

* Building Rapport

* Building consensus

* Communication skills

* Decisiveness

* Delegation

* Flexibility

* Independence

* Initiative

* Integrity

* Innovation

* Judgment

* Listening

* Organization

* Persuasiveness

* Presentation skills

* Setting priorities

* Teamwork

* Technical knowledge and proficiency

* Tenacity

* Work ethic

To prepare, start by reviewing your work history and think about situations that have occurred during your experience. Create a list of vignettes, followed by a list of behaviors you exhibited in each situation. Knowing this inventory of behaviors is the first step toward knowing yourself, and what type of job you might be best suited for, says Neil Lewis, a corporate consultant and principal of Lewis Associates. "Demonstrating self-awareness and knowing what you are good at and not good at is vital to selecting the right position, and effectively transferring that information in response to behavioral interviewing questions," he explains.

The next step is to write stories that will illustrate your talent. One of the best formats for describing your experiences is the "S.T.A.R." technique. Here's an example:

S describes the situation. "A local non-profit agency kept its books on a clunky, home-grown computer network. The network was slow, and in the last quarter it was down 30 percent of the time. In addition, the staff kept records on some distinct efforts using manual books because the existing infrastructure was unable to support their needs."

T describes the task. "I needed to analyze the problems, expand the system capacity and stabilize the network within 30 days with a modest budget."

A describes the action you took. "After listening to all of the staff's concerns, I prioritized the needs and supervised rebuilding the network, increasing the capacity and reliability. Through my systems knowledge, I was able to save money by recycling many of the components, and by being a bit tenacious with a software vendor, I was able to purchase a records management program at a discounted rate, and have it installed on the system."

R describes the result you achieved. "The project was completed within 28 days at 5 percent below budget."

The next level

While not wanting to sound contrived, it's best to practice your stories by telling them to your family, friends, or even talking to yourself in front of a mirror. This will increase your comfort level and confidence, which is important because, according to Lewis, roughly 60 percent of your success will be based on how you answer the question - not just the answer's content.

A few things you can do will take your relating these experiences to the next level. Add the "V" statement to the end of your story, which stands for "validation". This is where you supply the name of a reference who can validate your statements and your success. Also, consider creating an addendum to your chronological or functional resume that describes your experiences using the S.T.A.R. structure. This can be a great accompaniment to your thank you note, and it reminds the interviewer about your story, which will help you stand out from the crowd.

Tips for handling the unexpected

No matter how well prepared you are, you may be asked a question you're not immediately prepared to answer. In those cases, "I would formulate my thoughts before I attempted to give my answer. The interviewer will understand and appreciate the fact that you have gone about it in a systematic way," says Eliot Lasson, adjunct professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Baltimore.

If you don't have specific work experience that relates to a question, be honest about it, Lasson says. You'll undoubtedly be asked follow-up questions that will require more detail. Also, consider using non-work experiences to validate your behaviors and competencies. Most of all remember It's only one question.

"If you don't have an answer, admit it and move on. The truth of the matter is that the interviewer will not always be completely proficient in scoring your answer. Much of the determination of your fit for the job will come down to the chemistry between you and the interviewer," says Lasson.

Originally published Dec. 19, 2008

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