Competency Based Interview Questions: Master the Behavioural Interview
In a traditional interview, it’s easy to stretch the truth. Questions like “describe your strengths and weaknesses,” “how will you benefit the company,” or “what are your five year career goals” allow a candidate to be vague, hypothetical, or downright lie. If this startles you, imagine the interviewer. They must find the perfect candidate for a job using methods that are easily manipulated. One choice for HR is to hone their lie detecting skills by learning all the tricks of a typical liar. The second, is to use a new interviewing style making it very, very difficult to lie. This guide covers everything you need to know to master a competency based interview.
Building an impressive resume gets your foot in the door. The chance to be interviewed let’s you demonstrate your skills, and how you can excel above all other candidates. Hopefully you are already at this stage, and are now stressed about the hundreds of possible questions you’ll be asked. If not, or your resume is a little dusty, brush up on how to master your resume. This short course covers everything you need to know to make it to an interview round.
Interviewing is an artform. The mix of your appearance, experience, body language and persona is critical in the first 60 seconds. One minute and you’ve made an impression. Once formed, it affects the mood and outcome of an interview. If you’ve never had an interview before, understandably you’re going to be a tad nervous at the point. Andrew Pyle gives a good introduction on what to expect, and guides you through 10 mock interviews you can study and learn the skills for success. In addition to a professional outfit, body language is very important. 93% of our communication is non-verbal, so before you dash into the meeting room with prepared questions and answers, touch up on the essentials of body language.
What is a Competency Based Interview?
The traditional interview approach is flawed. Standard questions allowing for general and vague answers aren’t effective to determine how well a candidate performs in a role. Frustrated, a group of psychologists forged a new path. Under the logic “the past is the best indicator of future success” they crafted a new style, a new set of questions and approach to keep candidates on their toes. No longer can you lie on your resume and get away with it. Using direct questions needing a very specific response, it fast weeds out the fluffers, leaving only candidates with a remarkable ability to perform. Thus the competency based interview, or the behavioural interview, was born.
A competency is a skill that candidates either have naturally or have developed. You can classify a competency into one of the following groups:
Behavioural: Leadership, interpersonal skills or the ability to effectively communicate.
Technical: Programming languages, certain fields of work (Accounting/Nursing etc).
Attributes: Intelligence, flexibility, professionalism.
Attitudes: Optimism, enthusiasm, drive.
How a Competency Based Interview works
Employers using competency based interviews challenge candidates to describe details of specific situations in their experience. Interviewers will often deeply probe into a certain subject, asking follow-up questions and leading the discussion to learn if a candidate has the traits they are looking for in an employee. The insights gained from this approach far exceed what can be learnt in a traditional interview. A second benefit – all candidates in a behavioural interview are asked the same questions, making it easier to decide between candidates at the final round.
For a candidate, there are many opportunities to master this interview style. Remember, the whole purpose of the competency based interview is to allow you to demonstrate you have the skills and traits (competencies), that they need in the position. But what should you be trying to demonstrate? How can you gain insight into what the interviewer is looking for?
Getting inside the interviewers head
The questions asked in a competency based interview will differ depending on the job you are applying for. It’s simple really, the traits you need to demonstrate as CEO are far different from what’s required to be a sales agent. Likewise, a teacher is going to need a very different set of skills than a personal assistant. The best way you can prepare for a competency based interview is to have an idea of what the interviewer is going to ask. What is it the company is looking for?
The first place to look is the job description. This shows you the actual skills needed to do the job. I recommend candidates prepare examples for 5-6 core competencies that encompass the heart of the role. This allows you to structure your answers to match what the company is seeking.
Let’s do an example. I’ve grabbed a real job description from a position at Google HQ, Strategy & Scaling Lead – Publisher and Distribution Solutions. Outside of the “Googliness” they look for in staff, the responsibilities for this opening are as follows:
Lead complex and time-critical projects for senior leaders by quickly understanding context and developing a prioritized approach for resolution.
Identify, structure, and work on strategy and business scaling projects.
Execute sophisticated analyses and modeling that translates data into actionable insights. Communicate findings to senior leadership by preparing polished presentations and identifying key takeaways.
Build relationships with senior members of PDS and own parts of larger organizational initiatives both on an ongoing basis and on an ad-hoc basis.
Lead special projects for PDS (e.g., integration of new companies, segmentation of pods and new customers).
From this example, I pull the following competencies:
Project management (following structured processes & getting results)
Communication (both verbal and nonverbal)
Leadership (managing project teams as well as relationships with senior leaders)
Can create sophisticated models/analysis
Initiative to do more than simply your job description
Ability to make fast decisions
To prepare to interview for this position, you’ll need examples where you demonstrated each of the competencies above. In addition, research the company to discover specific traits they look for in staff. Google values an open culture, interactions between teams, and focuses on providing the best user experience. In an interview for this role, include experiences from your past that demonstrate you align with all of these traits. Finally, do a quick brainstorm on what you think a successful Google employee looks like, and tailor your responses to align with this mentality.
Answering their questions
By asking a candidate a series of direct questions, it’s virtually impossible to lie in a competency based interview. Looking at “Decision Making” as a skill, the interviewer may ask the following:
“Tell me about a time where you took a course of action your team did not agree with.”
“How did you handle the process, and what was the reaction from your team?”
“How did you react to the negativity from the team?”
“What did you learn from this situation?”
“What would you change if you could redo this task from scratch?”
Throughout all of this, your interviewer is looking for three main points.
A specific example to their question, and how you identified and addressed the problem.
An explanation to why you took the chosen course of action.
Insight gained from the outcome of your decisions and actions.
What is fantastic in a behavioural interview, the limit of the questions is only up to the imagination of the interviewer. They will probe for as much information possible to make their decision, perhaps even interrupting you to ask “what were you thinking at this point”, “how did the team react to your actions.” Understand that this is for two reasons. First, it’s a great way to learn about you. Your logic, thinking and justification for doing certain things highlights key traits in your personality, exactly the information needed to decide if you are the ideal candidate. Second, its a great filter for uncovering people who have lied on their CV’s. You can’t talk your way out when an interviewer is asking more and more details – eventually you will trip yourself up. Your best bet is to be prepared. Don’t make anything up. Think of answers related to the competencies you have identified in the role, rehearse your responses, and you will find that both your personality and skills shine in the interview.
Structure your responses
To excel in a competency based interview, you need to provide rock solid examples that prove you have the experience they are looking for. It’s easy to get lost here, and candidates can often go off track in a response. This happens as a result of nerves, inexperience, or even a lack of preparation. By now you understand what specific competencies your interviewer is looking for, and how they are going to ask you questions. Lets dive into how to pitch yourself, to give concise, clear examples that impress your interviewer.
A fantastic way to answer is using a structure. The best method is the STAR model, standing for Situation, Task, Action and Result.
Situation: Background of the situation, setting the scene for the interviewer.
Task: The specifics of what you were required to do/achieve, when, where, and who.
Action: The steps you actually took, behaviours, characteristics and skills you used.
Result: Final outcome. What happened, and what you learnt.
The STAR model is very simple. You use it to give a structure to your thoughts, and it makes it very easy for the interviewer to follow. Let’s do another example. I am applying for a role that requires flexibility as a core competency, and my question is:
“Tell me about a time when you created an innovative solution for a customer”
I was working in supply chain operations for a logistics company.
My task was to shorten the turnaround time of container return and pick up. I was part of a small team, and took the lead on this project as they were my primary customer and I had the relationship with the client.
I analysed every section of the customers supply chain, breaking each step into a separate KPI. I spent one week collecting data. Most were already optimized, but I found that my customer was returning empty containers from warehouse 1 to the depot, and picking up empty containers from the depot and trucking these to warehouse 2. However the warehouses were much closer together than it was to the depot. I sourced the cost of trucking empty containers from warehouse 1 to warehouse 2, and found savings of $150 per container when compared to their trucking costs to the depot.
I implemented a new process to keep track of the re-used containers, and as a result I saved this client over $2 mil USD in transportation costs throughout the year.
Simple, right? The STAR method makes this very easy.
The hardest part of the entire process is finding examples to fit the question. Take the six competencies above and use the star model to write your own examples. Find times in your experience where you demonstrated each of these. Every time you answer, ask yourself, HOW did I do this, explain it in detail. WHY you took certain actions, and WHAT results were achieved. Think also what you learnt, and come up with another time where you used the learnings to do even better. Did you use a process? What process? How did you get the information to make the decision? How did you bring your team on board with your line of sight? What happened? How did your customers react? It’s far better to brainstorm these now (before the interview), then draw a blank as you sit across the table from a potential employer. Take the time to practise, and you will excel in your interview.
Hint: Never ever, place blame on anyone in your responses! I don’t care if you have been asked about an annoying colleague, a frustrating boss or why you didn’t get along with the bossy office manager. Your interview is about you. Take responsibility, and be mature in your responses. Yes, your colleague may have been frustrating, but focus on the steps you took to manage their actions, to remain productive at work.
Probing and follow up
Competency based interviews are all about details. The interviewer will ask you all sorts of follow up questions. It may be simple, leading questions like “and then what happened.” You may need to give extra examples, or guide your interviewer through your thought process. Typically, probing questions are used to find out more information on one of these aspects:
Action. How you approached the task. Describe specific steps you took.
Thinking. Why choose this course of action. Describe your rationale.
Results. What impact did your actions have. Describe the outcomes.
Learning. Describe what this experience has helped you discover.
Application. Demonstrate you have grown by using these learnings in a new situation.
When preparing for a competency based interview, always consider these five areas as you form your answers. You will be grilled for more information, so be prepared.
What are they looking for?
The final step is preparation. This section guides you through many common competencies in the workplace. Each competency is supported with an example question, and a description of what an employer is actually looking for. It’s not possible to tailor answers that fit your direct experience, instead I have provided bullet points to guide you in your answer. Finally, I will give probing questions for each scenario, so you can have prepared responses ready as they ask for more information.
When answering, remember to always use the STAR model!
“Describe the most sophisticated analysis you have conducted in your work to reach a decision”
They are looking for the processes you follow to reach a decision, to determine if you have a logical approach. They also want to see the level of technical skill you have in analysis.
Use a project at university or an example that required you to do statistical modelling.
Explain what made it sophisticated (was it the data source, the method of analysis, etc).
Discuss the process involved in reaching a decision, the rationale you followed.
“How did you know how to proceed?”
“What brought you to the recommendation that you made?”
“Was your manager pleased with your recommendation?”
Attention to detail
“Tell me about a time you made errors in your work.”
They are looking for learnings, what steps you are now following to ensure a high level of accuracy in your work. They also want to see you have taken responsibility for your actions.
Brief the background of the situation, alongside the error you made.
Take responsibility for the error.
Discuss how you fixed the problem, highlighting the speed you made the corrections.
Talk about what you learnt, and the process you now follow to ensure it doesn’t reoccur.
“What was your bosses reaction when the errors were found?”
“Tell me more about the obstacles this created for you in your work (after the mistakes).”
“Describe to me a time where you have been in a team that was divided in their opinion.”
They are looking for how easily you can ease tensions within a team. Demonstrate leadership, your ability to bring together people with differing opinions.
Talk about the reasons for the two opinions in the team.
Describe the process you followed to get all team members on board.
Highlight the successful result as a consequence of your actions in aligning the team.
“How did you breach the gap?”
“Lead me through your thought process in approaching this resolution.”
“Tell me about a time where you had to explain a new concept to a colleague.”
They are looking for examples of your verbal communication ability, and skills in influencing. They want to grasp your understanding of the change process, as well as confirm you know that different people need to learn new concepts differently.
Talk about the process you took in preparing for the conversation.
Discuss the pivotal point in getting understanding and acceptance from your colleague.
Reflect on why you were successful in explaining this to your colleague.
“What did you do differently that was successful in bringing them on board?”
“What did your colleague say throughout the process?”
“How did they react to your explanation?”
“Tell me about a time where you failed to communicate effectively.”
They are looking for insights into a failure. Demonstrate you have the maturity to admit where you did not succeed, and your learnings. They want to see you did not repeat the mistakes.
Talk about why you thought you were adequately prepared.
Explain how you communicated and why it was not effective.
Give a second example to demonstrate you did not repeat this mistake a second time.
“What was it about your communication that failed?”
“What would you do differently today?”
“Tell us about a time you saw a conflict coming.”
They want to see you can recognize and manage confrontations. They want to know you can handle difficult situations in a constructive manner.
Describe how you recognized the conflict, and how you immediately began to resolve it.
Talk about how effective your technique was in constructively dissolving the tension.
Comment on how going through this conflict made the team stronger.
“What steps did you take pre-emptively to resolve the conflict?”
“Did anyone else see it coming?”
“How did you manage the resolution following the conflict?”
“What impact did this have on team morale?”
“Explain to me the most innovative solution you have created for a customer.”
They are looking for new ways of doing business, demonstrating you think outside of the box. They want to know that this can be repeated, and you can implement and take action on an idea.
Outline the process you followed to come up with the solution.
Talk about why it was innovative and demonstrate your expertise on the subject.
Describe the steps you took to ensure the idea was implemented successfully.
“What was the most challenging part of the implementation?”
“What did you enjoy most in the creative process?”
“What is a decision you have needed to make that you ‘put-off’ the longest?”
They want to determine your ability to use available information to make decisions. They want to know that you can perceive future impacts and implications of your chosen course of action.
Discuss the situation, and rationale that caused you to delay the decision.
Detail the outcome you expected while you were delaying the decision.
Explain if there is anything you would do differently today, in hindsight.
“When did that occur?”
“Who else was involved?”
“Would you make the same decision today?”
“Tell me about a time you delegated to the wrong person.”
They want to see you can demonstrate flexibility, and have the ability to make the best use of your subordinates. Also they want to see how well you support your team as a leader.
Explain your rationale for delegating to this individual at the beginning.
Discuss what led you to realise that this was the wrong person for the job.
Talk about how you made immediate changes to fix the situation, whilst being considerate towards the feelings of your staff.
“Lead me through your thought process, and explain what you have learned.”
“Did you make any other adjustments in your team as you realised this was not working?”
“How did staff in your team react?”
“Did this have any negative impact on the individual you delegated to?”
“Describe a time you were caught in an inefficient process.”
They are looking for adaptability, and your drive in creating solutions to everyday problems. They are looking for someone willing to challenge the status quo.
Explain your rationale in building a solution to fix the process.
Demonstrate you took guidance and suggestions from experienced team members.
Highlight your ability to implement the new process.
“How long did it take you to find a new/different approach to the task?”
“What steps did you take to implement the new procedure?”
“Describe the biggest change you have had to overcome in your work.”
They are testing to see if you are adaptable to achieving your goals, and can rapidly change in response to new information, conditions or obstacles.
Discuss the situation that led to the change.
Talk about how it was challenging for you, but you recognized this as an opportunity.
Elaborate on your understanding of the change cycle.
Conclude with how this change has had a positive effect, and you are now more content.
“How did you react to different stages throughout the transition?”
“What process did you follow to get through the changes?”
“Tell me the most important goal you have set, and how you successfully achieved it.”
They want to determine if you have structure to your tasks and methods for tackling big targets. They are looking for a process that you followed for success.
Describe a very important goal in your life, and what made it important.
Talk about the necessity of having a plan to achieve a goal.
Go into detail regarding the steps you took to reach your goal.
Discuss the outcome, and your feelings having been successful.
“What challenges did you have to overcome?”
“At the beginning, did you expect to achieve your goal?”
“Tell me about a time where you were given authority over a high priority task.”
They are looking for examples where your performance was better than normal staff. They want to know what makes you an ideal candidate, rather than another employee.
Discuss the skills you have that made you ideal for this task.
Describe how you approached the task, and how successful you were.
Talk about the decisions you made, and the decision making process you followed throughout the task.
“Why were you specifically chosen to work on this task? Please go into more detail.”
“What obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?”
“Tell me about a time you raised your hand to tackle a new assignment which you had no experience with.”
They are looking at your information gathering process, and ability to make effective decisions with limited data. Also judging your willingness to learn, and go above and beyond in your work.
Explain why you wanted the project. Highlight the chance to learn, willingness to do more.
Discuss how you got the information you needed for the task.
Go into detail about how your skill in (communication/programming etc.) made it possible for this task to be a success.
Confirm that you would put your hand up again.
“What steps did you take to approach the task?”
“What were you thinking at this point?”
“Give me an example when you were asked to do something that went against your core beliefs”
They are looking for how solid your belief system is, and if it aligns to their corporate values. They want to know what you would do in a situation that challenged your personal values.
Talk about a situation that was ethically wrong, and you chose to upkeep your values.
Research the specifics of their company values, and align your wording with theirs.
Discuss any repercussions that came from you upholding your beliefs.
Close by saying that you are happy you chose to maintain your values.
“What was your gut reaction, and how did you handle this?”
“When did this occur?”
“Describe a time you had to make a connection with a person, but it was difficult because of pre-existing conflict.”
They want to see a demonstrated ability to connect through difficult situations. They want to know you can maintain professionalism and a cool head through a conflict.
Talk about the conflict you had with the person, and how you prepared for the meeting.
Discuss how you approached the person, and what interpersonal skills you used to help.
Describe how you reached an agreement, and resolved the conflict.
“How did you approach this task?”
“Were you happy with the results?”
“Tell me about a time you had an underperforming team.”
They want to know if you can act as a role model, and communicate a vision to the team. They want to see results, and examples where your actions influenced team behaviour.
Discuss the background of the team, and how you approached the performance issue.
Describe the specific actions you took to add structure to the team in reaching their goal.
Talk about how you appealed to each individuals personal motivators.
Outline the results you achieved through your team with numbers, facts and figures.
“What steps did you take to improve performance?”
“How did the team react, and how successful were you?”
“Describe the most challenging negotiation you have been involved with.”
They want to see your ability to handle complex negotiations, your thought process and outlook (short/long term). They want to know how you work with clients, and the types of relationships you build.
Talk about the specifics of why it was a challenging negotiation.
Detail the approach you took in preparation, and the deal you were after in the negotiation.
Reflect on the process you followed, and any learnings you have made.
Describe the win-win approach you took, and how both sides were happy with the outcome.
“What steps did you take to prepare?”
“Describe why it was so difficult.”
“What was the outcome?”
“What was the outcome for the other party?”
Planning and Organizing
“We’ve all had situations where it was impossible to meet a deadline. Give me an example from your experience.”
They want to know how you approached the task of delivering bad news to your superior. Your ability to communicate, manage expectations and take responsibility.
Describe your exact actions once you realised you could not meet your deadline.
Hint: Immediately talk to your boss!
Talk about how you made a plan, with timelines and targets to complete the project.
Discuss what it took to get the project finished asap. Overtime? More staff?
Reflect on what you learnt, and how you would approach this situation differently today.
“How did you manage expectations once you realised you would miss the deadline?”
“How did your manager react to the bad news?”
“What was the final outcome?”
“Describe an effective presentation you have delivered to a large audience.”
They are after examples where you have demonstrated the technical skills of effective verbal communication.
Describe the topic and the method of delivery (tone of the script, accompanying presentation etc.)
Talk about why you chose these particular methods.
Detail what you did to prepare before you got on stage.
Reflect on why you believed it was effective, and support this with comments and feedback from the audience.
“Did you feel prepared?”
“What did you do differently that made it a success?”
“We’ve all had multiple projects at one point or another. Tell me about a time you had to juggle multiple responsibilities”
They want to see your ability to deal with pressure, stress, and perform under difficult circumstances.
Explain why you were leading multiple projects, highlight skills you have over other candidates.
Talk about the method you used to keep track of deadlines and tasks.
Discuss the success that you had in each project.
End on how much you enjoyed working under these conditions.
“What was the biggest challenge throughout this period?”
“Was it difficult for you?”
“Tell me about a time when you were the most productive member of a team.”
They want to know if you have what it takes to be the best. If you are willing to go above and beyond the expectations of your team to produce fantastic results.
Discuss why you felt it was important to work so hard.
Talk about the challenges you faced in reaching the team’s goal.
Briefly touch on the team’s reaction to your enthusiasm, and clarify how happy you were performing at this level.
Describe how high productivity comes naturally to you, and give additional examples where this has been the case in your experience.
“What did you do differently to your colleagues?”
“How did your colleagues react to the situation?”
“What impact did this have in your bosses eyes?”
“Describe a process you have used to manage a project.”
They are looking at your ability to use logic and methods to achieve positive outcomes. They want to see you can lead a team, and have success.
Detail the steps you followed in managing a project from idea to implementation.
Talk about challenges you faced, and how you overcame them.
Discuss how your results were also influenced by your ability to get the team motivated.
Talk about how you engaged the team, and motivated them.
“Were you happy with the result?”
“What did you do next?”
“What is the riskiest decision you have made in the last six months?”
They want to know the process you follow to evaluate risk, and how you make a decision. They want to see examples where you weighed up the pro’s and con’s to make an effective decision.
Describe what it was about the situation that made it a risky decision.
Talk about how you evaluated the benefits for every choice, alongside the negatives.
Discuss any repercussions that came to you unawares after you took action.
Reflect on how you could have made a better judgement.
“What information did you have prior to making the decision?”
“What was the reaction from your colleagues or friends to your decision?”
“In hindsight, would you still make the same decision?”
Sensitivity to Others
“What problems have your staff brought to you recently, and how did you help?”
They are looking to see if you are sensitive to the needs of other people, and are aware of your surroundings and environment. They want to know if you have strong interpersonal skills.
Listening here is key. Give examples where your staff have come to you with their concerns, you have listened, and helped find a solution.
Talk about your empathy, and how you have the ability to connect with your staff on both a personal and professional level. Reinforce with examples that show your staff trust you.
Explain that you have always found it easy to connect with people.
“Do you wish you had done something differently? Please explain”
“Do you enjoy discussing other people’s problems?”
“Describe a time you had to coach a subordinate to improved success.”
They want to see you can do more than simply lead, but are creating leaders and success through your subordinates.
Use an example that is in line with one of the competencies for the job you are interviewing for. It shows that you have the skill, and you can teach it to others.
Demonstrate the coaching methods used, and how this had a positive effect.
Talk about the long term development, and that you enjoy coaching and raising the calibre of your team.
“Give me more examples.”
“How did it turn out?”
“Tell me about a time you were leading a team, but they did not agree with you.”
They want to find out about your ability to perform under adverse conditions. They would also like to see how you rectified the situation.
Discuss why the team was at odds, and how you approached the issue.
Run through the process you used to get the team in alignment.
Describe the problems you had in getting agreement, and how you overcame them.
“How did you manage this situation?”
“What approach did you take to remain productive?”
“Tell me more about the obstacles that you faced.”
Answering traditional questions
To stand out from the competition, one last tip is to answer traditional interview questions using the STAR framework. It reinforces your answers, and gives concrete examples so that the interviewer remembers you.
Using the typical question “what are your strengths,” a normal answer could be: I am very good at training my colleagues. A great answer would add the details using the STAR method: “In my previous role, I created a training plan for newly recruited analysts to master the basics of Excel. I built a curriculum with online components and classroom sessions, and I was the instructor. My boss praised the success of this program, and I now hold classes every 3 months for both new staff and existing staff.”
See the difference?
Practice makes perfect
If you are interested in doing additional preparation, Matthew Hughes guides you through the most popular tricks and tips to get hired today. His course teaches you how employers get more information out of you (like probing questions), and has a range of practice questions to get you ready to land your dream job.
Remember to practise your answers by repeating them out loud. Spend time going over them, refining your response so that it’s ready to bounce off your tongue when the time comes in the interview. Competency based interviews are easy, once you have done your homework and have your examples ready. Without this preparation, you won’t make it very far.
What are you waiting for, start your preparation today!
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