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How to Answer Difficult Behavioral Interview Questions Right

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Your answers show interviewers who you really are, not who you pretend to be. They use past behavior to predict how you’re going to perform, if hired. That’s why top behavioral interview questions focus on specific situations in your personal and professional life.

Since these questions have many variations, it’s better to use a format than to rely on a script. So to help you get ready for your next interview, I’ve collected 12 behavioral interview questions and detailed what recruiters look for in your answers. Also, included are a number of sample behavioral interview answers to these tough questions.

how to answer behavioral interview questions
Are you prepared with top answers to difficult behavioral interview questions? (graphic source)

Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers About Yourself

These questions help interviewers decipher your real personality, goals, interests, and attitude.

1. What Are You Doing to Improve Yourself?

“What are you reading right now?” is another way to ask this question.

Kenneth Ashe, Project Manager at Prudential Financial says, “If a candidate doesn’t have an answer, that’s not good. I want to hire someone interested in developing themselves.”

It also shows a candidate’s interests. If an applicant is a member of Toast Masters, that shows they want to improve their public speaking skills.

Respond to this question by stating one or two career-related interests, followed by a brief story of the books or lessons you’re taking to learn it.

Cooking, crocheting, and other personal hobbies not related to your line of work are cute but add little to no value to your professional merits.

2. What’s the Number One Accomplishment You’re Most Proud Of?

It’s the same question as, “What’s your biggest accomplishment?” and “What’s your proudest moment at work?”

Sounds straightforward, right? The recruiter is giving you a chance to show off your proudest moment.

It’s a double-edged sword, because it also shows what your idea of hard work is. And if your idea of an accomplishment isn’t impressive enough, you just lost the interviewer’s interest.

“If the hardest thing you did was graduate within the average 4-year period, then I think you’re probably content with being average,” says April Davis, Founder of LUMA.

Yes, finishing college is great. But you can’t afford that way of thinking with so many college-level applicants competing for the same position.

If you’ve been working a while, share a story of when you exceeded a goal set before you. Meeting a quota isn’t enough.

Fresh graduate? Tell the interviewer how you survived writing a dissertation with uncooperative classmates and a part-time job. Similar stories of multi-tasking and working with others to achieve a challenging goal also work.

3. If I Were to Ask Your Best Friend to Describe You and Your Goals, What Would They Say?

This is often followed up with the question, “Would you agree?”

You might be close to your friends but you still don’t share the same mind. In this case, the interviewer is checking if you can accept this, and respect their point of view.

“It’s also a great way to check if the applicant can project what they want other people to see”, adds Marie DiMascio, Director of Finance and HR at McDougall Interactive.

4. Tell Me About a Time You Failed

This is probably one of the most common behavioral interview questions out there. Another way interviewers ask this is, “How did you handle a previous mistake?”

The interviewer wants to know if you have a healthy view failure.

Everyone fails at one point, so don’t try to answer this with a fake failure. Answers like,

“I hit the monthly target of 17 sales out of 14 required every month. But I wanted to beat the top seller who was only ahead me by 2 points. I felt like a failure.”

That kind of answer depicts the applicant as a perfectionist and probably an annoying humble bragger. It also shows they dwell on failure and might take a while to move on.

Choose a Failure That Meets These Criteria

  • Recent - A failure from your current or previous work.
  • Real - A real mistake at work with real consequences, not a humble brag.
  • Safe - Doesn’t raise red flags about your sanity and professionalism. Don’t share a story about a serious career-ending type mistake, or anything that might suggest a huge character flaw. This includes family squabbles, name calling, forgetting to attend work meetings, and a project that didn’t go well because of you.

How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions About Your Mistakes

“Open up about what happened. Describe the situation, your mistake, and what you did to correct it. Don’t forget the happy ending and the moral of the story”, suggests Michelle Riklan, Managing Director at Riklan Resources LLC.

Example Answer (Situation + Mistake + Solution + Happy Ending + Moral Lesson)

“I once misread the price for a high-end product to a new customer. Of course, the customer saw it as a good deal and we immediately began processing the sale. I got sticker shock after entering the product code into our system and realizing the correct price.

I didn’t know if the customer would still agree to the sale after knowing the item’s real cost. So instead of just going for it and risk losing the sale, I asked the customer to wait while I talked to my supervisor.

I owned up to my mistake and asked for help, admitting that I’m not sure if it’s better to lose the sale than give such a steep discount. My supervisor helped me explain the mistake to the customer, and allowed me to use his manager’s discount. I still closed the sale and learned a valuable lesson in re-checking prices, as well as trusting my supervisor.”

Behavioral-Based Interview Questions and Answers About Your Skills

These are the most common behavioral interview questions about the applicant’s communication, leadership, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills.

5. How Do You Handle a Challenge?

Interviewers want to know your work process to get a concrete picture of your ability to face similar challenges in the role you’re applying for.

For questions like this, it’s important to stress the unexpected change and what you did to cope, as shown in the example below.

“Due to an unexpected work emergency, my manager left town in the midst of a negotiation with a difficult client. I was assigned to create a presentation from the research he left and the briefing we received a few weeks ago.

I’ve never made a presentation on my own before, I always had my manager’s help. After going through our previous presentations, I buckled down and did the work. Two all-nighters later, I finished the presentation and earned the approval of our Director.”

6. Describe a Situation Where You Had to Resolve a Problem Between Friends or Colleagues

The ability to solve problems while working with others is a crucial skill for everyone working in an office, whether you’re a manager or an entry-level employee.

That’s why interviewers check if you’re a team player before they welcome you into their team.

For this question it’s important to highlight what you did to get everyone’s input, and not just your problem-solving skills.

Here’s an Example Answer (Group Problem + How You Worked With the Team + Solution + Result)

“Our team was tasked to design a website from scratch, but the brief we received was vague so we each had different interpretations of what the client wanted.

I listened to my teammate’s opinion, instead of rushing in to make my voice heard and adding to the confusion. When we couldn’t agree on one collaborative design, I talked to everyone in the team to get their perspective.

From there, I managed to gather our individual ideas, what we’re willing to compromise on, and what part of each other’s design ideas we’re willing to adapt. I didn’t take sides. After that, I presented my findings to the team and we agreed on a final design that combines the best of everyone’s ideas.”

7. How Would You Handle an Irate Customer When They’re Wrong?

Is the customer always right? Of course not, but interviewers prefer you remain polite and don’t rub it in their face.

Evan Harris, Co-Founder and Head of HR at SD Equity Partners say,

“We still ask this question, even when we’re hiring for a non-customer facing role. It’s important for us that everyone is on the same page when it comes to customer interaction.”

Harris prefers the applicant explains how they will bear the customer’s comments, however wrong it is, without being rude. It’s a test of patience and wit, so the interviewer also wants to know how you plan to address the customer’s problem.

An applicant for a Front Desk Specialist at a 4-Star hotel received this question:

An irate woman is complaining why her pet toy poodle isn’t allowed in her room, when hotel policy clearly states no pets are allowed. What would you tell the customer?

“Ms. (Name), as much as I want to let your dog stay with you, the “No Pets” policy of the hotel is important. It preserves the safety of other staying guests who may not be comfortable with a dog, or have serious allergies. 
I can look for other locations where your pet can stay, like a pet daycare or hotel. Would that be alright?”

Superb customer service is a standard in many hotels, but there are limits to the rules they can bend. So the correct answer isn’t just to give a discount, or let the customer have their way.

The interviewer is testing you, whether your proposed solution is just an escape, or if it will lead to more problems. Your answer should include a real solution that demonstrates your problem-solving skills.

8. How Do You Handle Disagreements With Your Co-Workers?

It’s all about your conflict management ability. Whatever HR experts say about cultural fit, it’s impossible to dodge out of every argument at the office. Some of your teammates might turn out to be indecisive, lazy, weird, or unprofessional.

In your response, emphasize your patience in dealing with whatever drama you faced. Even if your colleague is wrong, don’t badmouth them.

“I’m a project manager, and at one point one of the programmers I was working with missed a deadline I assigned. The programmer went ballistic after I asked about it. That wasn’t the response I expected, but I stayed cool. 

Good thing he relaxed after realizing I was just asking what happened—not attacking him. I found out that he was overwhelmed. Our project was competing with his other tasks. 

I asked if he needed a deadline adjustment, and we worked together to prevent future problems despite his heavy workload. The meeting ended with him apologizing, and thanking me for understanding.”

9. What Would You Do if Someone Continues to Take Credit for Your Work?

Ah, corporate politics. This question isn’t so much about patience and forgiveness, but your ability to persuade and play well with others.

Structure your answer into three parts:

  1. Demonstrate How You Exercised Generosity - Good leaders know that sometimes they must give first before receiving anything.
  2. Discuss Friendly Negotiations With Your Adversary - Show your communication, sales, and problem-solving skills.
  3. Show How You Lose or Win Graciously - Know that you can’t have everything so portraying yourself as a sour grape will make you less of a great candidate.

Here’s an example that includes all three steps:

“I’ll show my teammate that I’ll be fair to him, despite his actions. I will publicly give him credit for his own ideas, in hopes that he’ll start acknowledging me too.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll confront him and hammer out an agreement where we can simultaneously present our ideas to our boss. Since our boss knows who came up with the idea, we can each get the credit we deserve.

It’s a different story if it’s my boss that’s taking credit for my ideas. I think part of my job is to make by boss look good, to make his life easier. As long as my boss knows what I did, I think he’s justified in presenting my work to his superiors.”

10. How Would You Explain Your Job to a 5 Year Old?

If you can explain difficult concepts to a curious and energetic 5-year old, you can probably handle almost every type of customer there is. At least I think that’s the rationale behind this question.

The best answer is simple, removing as much technicality and specifics of the job without stripping it of its true purpose.

For writers and designers, the answer might be easy:

“I tell stories to show other people what’s happening around the world.”

“I design the cool websites you see on the computer, so it’s easier to read and people enjoy looking at them.”

But what if you work with social media, the government, a bank, or somewhere a bit more complicated?

Example Answer For Social Media

“I read what people write on the computer, collect popular pictures and jokes, and share them with others. Sometimes, I also share announcements about our company, like if we have a new product.”

Answer For Banking and Other Financial Jobs

“I take people’s savings when they have extra money, so they have something to use when they need it in the future.”

How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions About Your Career

11. What’s the Riskiest Thing You’ve Done in Your Career?

This question is popular in jobs where the applicant’s appetite for risk is a big concern, such as Wall Street Jobs and leadership positions. 

Do you shy away from uncertainty or do you face it head on? Are you so conservative that it takes you years to make any noticeable progress on your goals? Those are two more things the interviewer is trying to find out.

Align your response to the company’s values and risk appetite. Amazon, for instance, relies a lot on data gathered from customer behaviors on their site. Other companies focus on risks that pave the way for innovation, such as Tesla.

Here’s an example of a safe but still good answer:

“Risk depends on how you define it. What might be risky for me may be normal or conservative for you. While I’m not one for unnecessary risks, I appreciate calculated risks that push the limits of what’s possible.

So before taking any risk, in life and at work, I consider the pros and cons, as well as the ramifications of my decision. That helps me determine if a risk is worth taking.”

After that, you can earn extra brownie points by sharing a major crossroads (or setback) that forced you to explore a new direction, and how that decision paid off.

12. Would You Prefer Your Boss to Pay Close Attention to Your Work, or Give You Enough Room for Creativity?

Like other behavioral-based interview questions listed here, this one has no right and wrong answer. Ideally, your answer should put you right in the middle of the spectrum.

“With a new job, I always ask for my new supervisor’s preference in managing employees and projects. If they prefer a more hands-on approach, I would work with them every step of the way.

But if they want me to take the lead, I’ll do my best not to disappoint. The key for me is being flexible to meet the demands of my current work environment.”

Listen to What is Asked

Sometimes applicants are too eager to answer the question that they don’t stop to consider what the interviewer is looking for.

Perhaps you’ve already had some practice answering a similar question. But that doesn’t mean your well-rehearsed answers will fit nicely.

Sarah Dowzell, COO of Natural HR agrees,

“I've interviewed a few candidates who have clearly prepared for the interview with formulated examples they could use for different behaviors or competencies. But they don't always quite match up to the one I'm asking for.”

For example, how would you answer this question?

Tell me about a time when you persuaded a colleague to alter their thinking and how did you go about it?

The obvious answer for some applicants might be a situation demonstrating their communication and negotiation skills. And that’s not wrong but it’s also incomplete.

For Dowzell’s case, she’s also looking for your method of researching information to support your case. If you read the question above, you’ll see the question requires two answers.  

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