How to Answer Tough Interview Questions – Installment 2

Let’s take a look at the three categories of interview questions (traditional, scenario-based, and behavioral interview questions) we mentioned earlier this week, to determine what they reveal about an applicant and how to apply the principles from our previous installment when answering all three types of questions.

Traditional Interview Questions

Traditional interview questions are tried and true questions that are probably as old as the first job interview. These questions revolve around the applicant’s career goals, strengths, and weaknesses. They are all questions that the interviewer asks to find out about you – the candidate. Your response should give insight into who you are as a professional and why the manager should want you as a part of the team.

Sample traditional interview questions include:

  • How do you see this position factoring in to your long-term career plan?
  • What unique strengths do you have that would be valuable to this team?
  • What do you find most difficult about time management?

Each of these questions are asking you to make judgements about your skills and competencies, with a focus on how you match up with their organizational culture and position requirements. Let’s break one of these questions down to take a look at what the interviewer can learn about the applicant from their answer.

How do you see this position factoring in to your long-term career plan?

Your answer will yield the following about you:

  • Did you take the time to prepare for the interview by reviewing the job description?
  • Did you take the initiative to learn about the company you are interviewing with?
  • Do you set goals and develop a path for reaching them?
  • Do you really want this job?

The applicant that answers this question correctly will already be ahead of others being considered for this job by demonstrating that they possess key skills such as preparation, initiative, accountability, organization, and commitment. 

So what response will impress the interviewer? When a position you are interviewing for now is not where you want to be two or five or ten years down the line, how can commitment be demonstrated? Let’s revisit some of the principles above and look at how to successfully answer this question.

When answering this question, it is important to demonstrate enthusiasm for the opportunity. Do not tell the interviewer that you would prefer another role. Your answer should explain what it is about the company and position that attracted you to apply. Answer the question completely by providing context around what skills and competencies you see yourself demonstrating or learning in this role that will have a positive impact on your career. Avoid providing negative insight into your personal situation. 

Scenario-Based Questions

Scenario-based questions ask the applicant to make a judgement call about a possible scenario they may encounter in the role they are interviewing for and to describe how they would respond to the situation. These questions typically break down to an ‘if this, then what’ style of question. Scenario-based questions can be straight-forward questions, such as asking what you would do if your manager asked you to work over-time or what action you would take if you saw one of your colleagues stealing company property. They can also be more complex questions requiring you to identify them as scenario-based questions before answering.

Let’s look at some samples of more complex scenario-based questions:

  • If an irate customer contacted you about a billing discrepancy with their account, how would you handle the call?
  • If you were working on a large, inter-departmental project and the manager from the other department approached you about an error that you did not make, how would you handle the conversation?
  • How would you handle an employee who has recently started to demonstrate poor performance, but has been a strong performer in the past?

Each of these questions take on the quality of a word problem, with a possible scenario being described that you will be asked to troubleshoot and resolve. This style of question can be applied to any job type at any level within the organization. Let’s take a closer look at one of these questions to understand what the interviewer learns about the applicant.

If you were working on a large, inter-departmental project and a manager from another department approached you about an error that you did not make, how would you handle the conversation?

Your answer will yield the following about you:

  • Can you communicate effectively with managerial staff?
  • Do you understand the importance of inter-departmental relations?
  • How do you respond to criticism?
  • Is your focus on the success of the team or being right?

Struggling to handle criticism and demonstrating an inability to see criticism as a learning tool rather than a personal attack is detrimental to building team rapport and correcting mistakes that cost companies productivity and revenue. It is likely that every manager has already had experience with team members that struggle with handling this type of scenario in a professional way and that this is a consideration when identifying new team members to join their team. Being able to demonstrate the ability to work with superiors, team members, and take criticism is something that puts most applicants at the top of the list.

What is the correct way to respond to a question like this? How do you avoid appearing that you made a mistake you did not make without pointing a finger at another person? What if the manager is wrong about the there being an error? Let’s apply our interviewing principles to give a positive answer to this question.

To provide a complete answer to the interviewer, take them through the steps you would take to handle the situation. Providing this context will demonstrate your confidence in handling criticism. If you are unsure you understand the scenario, ask a question or clarify by paraphrasing. Your answer should focus on understanding the managers concerns, troubleshooting what happened, and determining what an appropriate resolution would be that would satisfy the needs of both departments. Your response should not be to shift the responsibility of troubleshooting this issue to another manager or focusing on proving the manager is wrong and assigning blame to someone else. If it is something that you can resolve, show initiative in handling the managers request or take ownership to ensure the correct team member understands the urgency behind troubleshooting the issue and communicate steps to resolve and timeframe for completing the task. Taking the step of ensuring the person who made the error is aware of what happened and providing feedback on how to prevent this from occurring in the future is also beneficial. Depending on the size of the issue and the complexity involved in determining a resolution that meets the needs of both departments, scheduling a meeting between the two departments to understand the interactivity may also be an appropriate step.

Behavioral Questions

Behavioral questions ask an applicant to provide anecdotal evidence of how they have behaved in past employment or educational situations. These questions typically follow a pattern of ‘tell me about a time when’ the applicant had to deal with a certain situation or problem. Many employers have replaced scenario-based questions with behavioral questions because while people may know how they should handle a situation, they are apt to give a gut reaction when asked to recall a specific time when they had to resolve a problem. It is believed that behavioral questions will demonstrate how a person will actually react, rather than demonstrating how they believe they should react to a scenario.

Let’s look at some sample behavioral questions I have heard hiring managers ask in the past:

  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t agree with your supervisor. How did you handle that situation?
  • What was your most significant achievement in your last position? What did you do that you believe contributed to this success?
  • Give me an example of a project you worked on that didn’t work out as planned. What would you have done differently in hindsight?

Unlike a scenario-based interview, each of these questions require the applicant to cite specific examples of when they had to handle a situation. Applicants who are not familiar with this mode of interviewing often share the first example they can think of, without thinking about if that is the best example of past behavior to represent them as an applicant. Regardless of the complexity of the question, they give the hiring manager or recruiter insight into the applicant’s thought process and analytical skills, as well as their ability to resolve problems.

Let’s take a closer look at one of these questions and what a hiring manager can learn about you as an applicant from your response:

Tell me about a time when you didn’t agree with your supervisor. How did you handle that situation?

  • How do you talk about your employers?
  • Are you able to communicate effectively with leadership?
  • Are you a team player?
  • Is your answer focused on being right or resolving the situation successfully?

The first instinct of most people is to talk about a time when they proved their manager wrong, but who is correct may be less important than how the situation was handled. They key here is to demonstrate your ability to provide a relevant anecdote that also highlights your ability to troubleshoot a problem, working with your supervisor. The focus should be on a positive outcome or resolution, rather than proving the manager wrong. Remember, this is not the time to tell a funny story, it is the time to demonstrate your professionalism. Avoid saying anything negative about past employers and using sarcasm to advance your scenario. 

Answering this question by saying you have never had a disagreement with your supervisor is also the wrong route to take. It is not believable that you agreed with every decision your supervisor ever made and rather than showing that you are easy to get along with, you may come across as lacking initiative in identifying and sharing process improvements or identifying potential problems. Most employers are looking for employees who are willing to go beyond the minimum of just doing as they are told.

When responding to behavioral questions, active listening will help you to be successful. Identify the cues that this is a behavioral question and the components of the question that are subtler, so you can share, not the first story you think of, but the one that demonstrates your past actions in the best light. Ensure you provide context as to how the anecdote you share is relevant to the question being asked. Provide enough details to demonstrate your ability to troubleshoot and collaborate effectively with leadership.

Once you understand the types of interview questions and the basic principles of a successful interview, you have all the skills you need to be able to navigate the unpredictable landscape of candidate screening. Employing these principles in answering each question will help you to feel confident in focusing on your skills and competencies rather than the worry of what question comes next. We understand at Bender Consulting how one good interview can change the direction of the rest of your career—by applying these skills you can make every answer count.

For more blogs on interviewing, please refer to:

How to I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.

9 Steps to a Successful Interview

How to Answer Tough Interview Questions – Installment 1

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