Behavioral interviewing is commonly used across the Fortune 500 – so much so that there are few job candidates who haven’t been asked a question beginning with, “Tell me about a time when …” The idea behind behavioral interviewing is simple. If you can get a job candidate to tell you about how they handled past situations that are like those they are likely to face in the new job, you will learn a lot about the skills and personal attributes they displayed through their behavior.

But there’s a big difference between doing a behavioral interview and doing it effectively. The two keys to effectiveness are: a) determining the competencies needed for success in a job, and b) asking the best questions to explore a candidate’s experience and capability in those critical areas.

Identifying the Right Competencies

How do you go about deciding the competencies needed for success in a job? The best way to do this is to study how the best performers handle the most challenging situations in their jobs compared to how typical performers handle the same situations, and then look for the competencies that the best performers demonstrate more consistently and more often than the others. Often referred to as core competencies (which typically include things like flexibility, initiative, teamwork, persistence, problem solving, judgment, and motivation), these are the ones to target in behavioral interviews. They speak to the “DNA” of a candidate and are more difficult for people to develop on the job, so you want to hire people who already have them.

Asking the Right Questions

Then comes the issue of what questions to ask to surface those competencies in the best candidates. Quite literally, there are hundreds of behavioral interview questions suggested in different books and trade journals to get at any number of competencies. How do you know which ones to choose?

For example, you might be tempted to ask questions like, “Tell me about a time when you showed initiative,” or, “Tell me about a time when you persuaded someone to do something that they didn’t want to do.” The problem isn’t that these questions won’t get evidence of past behavior, but that you are giving away the competencies you are looking for. It’s therefore likely that the candidate will tell you about one time when they showed initiative or persuaded someone, but not whether they will do so either consistently or when the situation calls for it.

Here’s a tip: Instead of asking questions targeted to specific competencies, ask about the types of situations that will be most challenging in the job and see what you learn from how a candidate handled them. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you think about it, the right candidate will give you evidence of the core competencies needed for success in these situations – logically, the competencies you are looking for.

The best way to identify these situations is to ask people who are in the job to tell you which situations are most challenging or difficult to deal with in the job. Which challenges do they work through successfully that others may struggle with? Ask your best performers as well as your more average ones. (You may hear different answers: what average performers find challenging, the top performers may not.) Boil down the list to 5-6 types of situations that people in the job find most challenging and that lead to the most critical results.

As an example, here are three challenging situations that you might hear from HR representatives working for a large corporation:

  • Being given additional responsibilities for which they were not prepared
  • Not having enough time to get everything done under a tight deadline
  • Meeting the conflicting demands of two different bosses

Turning Situations into Questions
So what interview questions do you ask to learn about the competencies needed to deal with these situations? The answer is straightforward: take the situation and add the following words at the beginning, like so:

  • “Can you tell me about a time when you … were given an additional responsibility for which you were not prepared?
  • “Tell me about a time when you … didn’t have enough time to get everything done under a tight deadline.
  • “Tell me about a time when you … had to meet the conflicting demands of two different bosses.

Again, there are literally an untold number of behavioral interview questions you can ask. By following this suggestion, it’s easy to know that you are not only asking the right questions, but also that the types of situations you are asking about mirror the challenges a new hire will face in the job. Questions like these don’t tip your hand on the competencies you are looking for, and there are no “right” answers – but the answers will tell you whether a candidate has what it takes to deal effectively with these situations and others like them.