When a hiring manager asks, “Tell me about a time when…”, they’re fundamentally trying to determine how you’ve reacted in past situations. Your relevant experience aside, this gives them a much clearer sense of how you actually perform on the job, rather than what you might do in a hypothetical situation.
This type of question is a behavioural interview question, meant to encourage candidates to dig a little deeper in sharing stories regarding their past work environments, qualifications, or even their personal lives.
“What is a behavioural interview question?”
Unlike standard job interview questions – i.e. “Why do you want this job?” or “What are your greatest strengths?” – the purpose of behavioural questions is to provide the hiring manager with concrete examples of demonstrated skills that relate directly to the position you’re applying for.
For example, if at your previous position you eliminated procedural redundancies and ended up saving the company money, there’s a good chance you could do it again.
The list of potential behavioural interview questions is essentially limitless, but the following examples cover a broad spectrum:
Negative questions – Tell me about a time when you…
- Had a conflict at work: Your interviewer wants to know how you deal with professional disputes, so start by outlining the context of the conflict. Talk about the actions you took and how the disagreement was resolved in a professional and productive way. Properly articulating your ability to stay calm under pressure and tackle issues head-on speaks volumes.
- Failed: The hiring manager wants to see that you’re able to take responsibility for your actions instead of making excuses or putting the blame on a coworker. They’re also trying to determine whether you’re able to learn from your mistakes and use the experience as an opportunity to improve yourself.
- Had a disagreement with your manager: Workplace disagreements are bound to happen; it’s what you do when they arise that demonstrates true character. The hiring manager is attempting to gauge if you have positive working relationships with those in positions of authority, so be sure to respond in way that displays respect for your previous employer. You’ll also want to discuss your relevant skills and experience that helped you move past the issue.
- Had to deal with a tough manager/stakeholder: Do you hold on to conflict, or are you able to stay positive in difficult situations? Don’t speak ill of previous managers, lest you come across as difficult to work with. Stay upbeat and discuss how the experience helped you grow.
- Made a mistake at work: The hiring manager wants to know that you’re able to acknowledge your errors and learn from them, so stay focused on what you took away from the incident. Frame the situation in a positive light by being honest and taking responsibility.
- Missed a deadline: There is nothing good about missing a deadline, so simply embrace the occurrence. Part of being a successful employee is admitting your faults, then establishing solutions to avoid similar problems in the future. Explain why you missed the deadline, stay accountable, and reveal the steps you took to ensure your future strategy provided increased productivity both for yourself and the company.
- Had to work with a difficult team member: This is an attempt to figure out how you work with others, so focus on what you did to get the assignment back on track, not on what your coworker did or didn’t do. It’s not about you “winning” the argument, it’s about the actions you took to reach a consensus.
Positive questions –Tell me about a time when you…
- Learnt from your mistake – The hiring manager wants to learn how you handle challenges, so briefly explain the situation, but don’t make this the focus of your answer. Promptly switch over to what you learned, emphasizing the steps you took to ensure it never happened again.
- Had to step out of your comfort zone: Showcasing adaptability and a willingness to take on new challenges is crucial, so highlight your desire to grow and explore new points of view regarding workplace challenges. This demonstrates a great level of confidence and curiosity.
- Took initiative at work: Can you get the job done without being babysat? Do you come up with your own creative solutions? While it’s necessary to provide situational details, the hiring manager really wants to know the motivation behind the actions you took. Every employer likes a worker who steps up to the plate
- Solved a challenging problem: This gives the hiring manager a better understanding of how proactive you are. Give a brief description of what your previous role was, what the problem was and how its correction was beneficial to the organization. If you can demonstrate that you took the time to understand the underlying causes of the issue, the hiring manager will have good reason to see you as a reliable candidate
- Met your goals: This is a two-pronged question: do you have what it takes to not only formulate your own goals, but take the necessary steps to turn them into a reality? Give the hiring manager the relevant context, then emphasize the steps you took to both set your objective and ultimately achieve it. Finally, be specific about the results that followed.
- Went above and beyond your regular responsibilities: The hiring manager is trying to not only gain insight into your work ethic, but also understand how you personally define going “above and beyond.” Whether it’s your willingness to stay late or the extra steps you took to make sure a deadline was met, tell a story that highlights what you’ll do to get the job done.
- Received recognition from your manager: Receiving praise may seem straightforward, but your reaction demonstrates both how you respond to positive feedback and how it may affect your future workplace performance. Be grateful for the acknowledgement of your hard work and tell the hiring manager how you used the feedback to continue improving in your career. Describing how you used past successes to leverage your strengths and further advance your career goes a long way.
Here are a few ways to prepare:
- Know your role: The more you know, the better. Familiarize yourself with as many aspects of the job role – and the company – as you can.
- Pair your qualifications: After reviewing all the job requirements, make a list of your own skills that seem relevant.
- Think of specific examples: Mentally highlight situations where you were ultimately successful using these aforementioned skills.
- Don’t forget to share: If you’ve prepared beforehand, this should be the easiest part. The STAR method is a great tool to remember, which we discuss in depth here.
“Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work.”
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