Based on advice given by Sarah Cardozo Duncan at the Naturejobs career expo, Boston. Sarah has 20 years’ experience in recruitment and career development as career strategist based in Boston.
Naturejobs career expo journalism competition winner Ulrike Träger
You’re in the interview for your dream job. You give a great presentation on your work. You looked up the company, their work and the person interviewing you. All is going well. Until someone asks “please give us an example of when you had a conflict with your boss”. You start to sweat. You don’t know what to say. You stutter. You didn’t prepare for this type of question.
Behavioural questions are difficult, especially as you can’t prepare for every possible variation of this type of question. But once you understand why these questions are asked, and what the interviewer looks for in an answer you can prepare for and confidently answer them.
Behavioural questions are aimed to assess how you will behave in a future situation, based on past experiences. All questions, examples below, ask you to tell a story about previous work experiences. They are likely aimed to assess a specific skill set such as teamwork, leadership qualities, interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities or your ability to work under pressure.
- Talk about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours. Interpersonal skills.
- We all make mistakes we wish we could take back. Tell me about a time you wish you’d handled a situation differently with a colleague. Team work/Interpersonal skills.
- Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work. Problem solving.
- Tell me about a time you were under a lot of pressure. What was going on, and how did you get through it? Pressure.
- Describe a time when you saw some problem and took the initiative to correct it rather than waiting for someone else to do it. Leadership skills.
You want to always answer these questions with an achievement – a success story on how you managed the situation. Don’t be vague; think about detailed situations from your past. You don’t need a story for every possible question. Preparing six to eight achievements should be enough, as long as you cover all of your bases (interpersonal skills, team work, leadership, problem solving).
A good answer for a behavioural question has three parts. First, you describe the situation and the problem. It’s not really important what the situation is, though make sure it’s not a minor conflict, and that the problem has not been caused by you. You want to put yourself in a good light and demonstrate that you possess the skills needed for the job, not tell the story of your miscommunication causing a disagreement.
Then, state the actions you took to solve the problem or improve the situation. Explain, step-by-step, how you analysed what was happening and came up with a good solution. Lastly, describe the outcome and your conclusion from it. Has the situation improved? What did you learn? Formulating a conclusion that you can use to prevent a future conflict is the ideal end to your story. The actual story you tell is not that important: the disagreement with your boss won’t be judged. Your process of solving the issue is the important bit. The employer is trying to figure out how you would respond in a similar situation in your new work place, and if your response fits the companies’ mentality.
Your answer should be one to two minutes long. Spend some time practising – you want to be able to fluently tell the story. Practice will also allow you to be more relaxed throughout the whole interview, as you know you’re well prepared for perhaps the hardest question.
But what if you’re asked about a situation you have never been in? Should you, thinking you know what kind of answer is expected of you, make up a story? Nope. These questions are aimed to evaluate if you fit into the company, so making up an answer is not a wise move. Instead, present a valuable alternative that you think answers their question in broad terms. Never had a disagreement with your boss? What about a disagreement with another colleague, instead?
Remember: self-reflection is key to answering behavioural questions. Think about your past work life and find examples for challenges which you successfully solved. By answering them honestly, behavioural questions will give you and your potential employer a chance to both work out if you belong there.
Ulrike Träger is a post-doc at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Her research focuses on the development of immune cells in different tissues. Outside the lab she loves to travel and run, ideally combining the two. You can follow Ulrike on Twitter or her blog.