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Why Behavioral Interviews Are Difficult To Master


Louigi Verona
July 2020

Behavioral interviews have gradually become a standard in hiring. Unlike your usual hypotheticals, behavioral questions focus on your actual experience. Instead of asking "What would you do in situation X", you are asked "Tell me about a time when this and this happened to you."

The core assumption behind behavioral interviews is that past performance predicts future performance. Therefore, behavioral interviews are meant to assess your experience and fitness for a given role.

You would think that as years go by and your experience grows, behavioral interviews would get easier and easier. But somehow they are as difficult, frustrating and unnerving as the first time. Why?

I contend that behavioral interviews prompt a type of self-reflection that is inherently unnatural to how most people process their experiences, and that the way behavioral interviews are typically set up and evaluated makes them especially resistant to being mastered.

An important note here is that a lot of these points are true for hypothetical interviews too, but I am targeting specifically behavioral interviews due to the common belief that they are a very objective and proven tool for candidate evaluation.


The expertise of self-reflection

When you apply for a job, in most cases you would be applying for something that you are good at. It's going to be something that you have practiced daily for many years.

Behavioral questions are effectively questions that prompt you to reflect on your life. And self-reflection is not something that people do very often to begin with. Even if someone does tend to reflect a lot, they are not going to be doing it daily, and they are not going to limit their reflecting to the minutiae of their work life.

And there is good reason why self-reflection is not something we tend to engage in too often: it's a costly mental process. It requires one to step back, recall relevant past events, analyze them and come up with insights. All of this requires time and effort. So, at any given time you are more likely than not to generally be rusty in the reflective department. Yet, everything would hinge on your ability to deliver precise, structured recollections, with a setup and a punchline.

One can make an argument that a habit of reflecting back on one's career is one of the hallmarks of maturity: disciplined self-reflection allows a person to grow as an expert. Perhaps, but the way we reflect back on our professional lives is rarely done through the dimensions of a job interview.

For instance, how often have you asked yourself about your most challenging project? Or about the time when you had to communicate a technical topic to a non-technical audience? That's just not how we think about our careers.

But how do we think about our careers?

Our self-reflection is going to be shaped by the context we are in, by what we deem to be important and informative to us, and, of course, by the actual experience we end up having. In other words, our choice of topics for self-reflection is always going to be limited.

If we had a situation when we had to communicate a technical topic to a non-technical audience, and for one reason or another this was important to us, we will remember it, analyze it and be generally prepared to talk about it. However, if our experience communicating a technical topic to a non-technical audience had been trivial or wasn't something that we had to especially focus on, perhaps even remembering a good example would be difficult. After all, there are countless things to focus on at work and you cannot possibly focus on all of them.

Even if one does learn something important from having communicated a technical topic to a non-technical audience, it's unlikely to be this really structured narrative, with the situation, action and result. We learn and even reflect without writing an essay in our mind.

And, having learned something from a valuable experience, we are unlikely to go back to this experience again and again. Instead, we just start operating with the newly acquired knowledge, and are likely to forget the details of what informed us in the first place.

And so, behavioral questions require us to engage in this peculiar self-reflection that none of us are especially good at, and that we require only several times in our lives when we are searching for a job.


The butterfly effect

But not only do we have to engage in this special kind of self-reflection, behavioral questions are also infinitely variable. While your own personal self-reflection is limited by what you deem to be important, your interviewers are not going to have these limitations. You can be asked literally anything.

Typical advice involves coming up with several key stories: biggest success, biggest failure, most challenging project, mistakes, leadership, etc. But while preparation certainly increases your chances of success, even a small variation in the way the question is put can completely upset your prepared narrative.

This point is usually missed when talking about behavioral interviews. Many recruiters and hiring managers firmly believe that the amount of questions is more or less limited, and that what they are asking is surely something very basic. But this is an illusion, and a dangerous one at that.

Consider these two questions: "Walk me through your most challenging product launch" and "walk me through your product launch". Seemingly very similar questions, they require a completely different approach.

In the first case, you would want to pick a project which had a clear challenge, preferably one that had some sort of a resolution and which can be explained in 2-3 minutes. In the second case, you would want to talk about a project that had a 360 degree arc of inception, planning, implementation, launch and marketing, since the emphasis is not on a singular challenge, but instead on the product life-cycle.

It's totally possible, of course, that the project you have in mind fits both, but it's rare, and even in such a case the details to emphasize are going to be dramatically different. And more likely than not you'll have to scramble to come up with an example that fits, which is going to hurt your ability to deliver a structured, insight-rich story.

Add to that the fact that when we know the solution to a puzzle, it always seems obvious to us. This is a type of hindsight bias. Which means that interviewers frequently can't appreciate the difficulty of the questions they are posing.


Action authorship

The consensus on how to respond to behavioral questions is to use the STAR method (situation, task, action, result). But the important addendum to this is that this resulting action has to be specifically authored by you, the candidate - talking about a team effort is usually interpreted as a mistake.

This is a problem because it greatly limits our options. This also implies that we are not able to learn from our peers and the situations that we are involved in, even if we were not the ones actually fixing the problem.

Purportedly, one can attempt to describe such a setup, point out the little they did do, and then explain what they have learned from it, but this is a risky move, and I have frequently seen this maneuver being used against the candidate.


Thinking on your feet

There is an inherent contradiction in the proposition to think on your feet and yet deliver profound insights about a random situation.

Unless we are lucky to receive a question that we have specifically prepared for, behavioral interviews invariably leave us with the uneasy impression that we could have done better - if only we had the opportunity to think about it and collect our thoughts. Like a comedian who has to react to a retort from a heckler, we are expected to be at the top of our game in this battle of wits.

Even if the interviewee does remember a situation that fits the question, they might not have enough time to structure the story well, to think through all the implications and insights.

That putting together a coherent story requires quite a bit of work is evident to anyone who went through the preparation of such stories for interviews. The amount of mental effort that goes into structuring the facts of your career into a compelling, clear story is immense. I still go back to the key cases I've written down years ago, continuing to tweak them and sharpen the message.


Interpretation

One of the most important parts of the scientific method is proper interpretation of empirical data. A lot, if not most of science, is about making sure we are not misinterpreting the experiment.

With all the praise leveled at the accuracy and alleged scientific rigor of behavioral interviews, there doesn't seem to be a single clearly defined standard of how to interpret their results.

The general idea is to pay attention not only to the story itself, but also to things that are not directly tied to the content of the question - how candidates structure their narrative, whether they are able to be humble and learn from their experiences, whether they can differentiate between process and result, whether they are a team player, whether they are customer-focused, whether they embrace ambiguity, and so on and so forth. The list is potentially endless.

Which means that the multiplicity of behavioral questions is matched, if not outperformed, by the multiplicity of interpretations of the answer. And as behavioral questions tend to be broad, it's frequently very difficult to understand what the interviewer is fishing for, leaving you at the mercy of reading their body language and trying to understand the direction that their follow-up questions might be pointing to.

This also suggests that the person conducting the interview is expected to be no less than an accomplished psychologist, able to gauge complicated traits, skills and behavioral patterns from a 40 minute discussion.

And the more esoteric the signals, the less rigorous the interpretation. After all, everyone might have their own idea of what it means to be a team player or what it means to embrace ambiguity. Even if the company has their definitions straight, the candidate will have no idea what those are, and each company can have their own unique reading of those concepts. Not only that, but the interviewer must conduct their conversation in a way that will in the end allow them to make a decision on whether the candidate is a fit for the role or not, which adds to the bias and forces them to form an opinion as early as possible.

This means that the evaluation is going to be as good as the evaluator. And companies rarely stick even to this nebulous standard: I have frequently seen people take vastly different approaches to how to evaluate even the same set of questions. And while in science it is required to come up with hypotheses before running the experiment, the practice of hiring is rife with cherry picking after the fact.

What this means for the candidate is that no matter what answer they give, there is going to be a great deal of unresolvable ambiguity. It is, unfortunately, quite normal to think back to your answer and have no idea whether you have nailed it or maybe missed the point completely.

That this amount of uncertainty is common is noteworthy. The reason why one would think that they should be able to master behavioral interviews is because behavioral interviews are being marketed as a rigorous, objective tool for candidate evaluation. But ultimately, they are a bias-prone and unscientific method which does a good job at concealing its true nature, while giving the interviewer extensive options to be subjective.


Counterargument: behavioral questions are designed in a way that anyone would have an answer

The general drift of counterarguments is along the lines of dismissing the difficulty of behavioral interviews and making a case for them being specifically designed as questions that one should be able to answer without much preparation and/or being able to answer them if one is truly experienced and competent.

While this sentiment is directly addressed in the article, I felt it necessary to go through this specific objection: behavioral questions are designed in a way that anyone would have an answer.

First, there is no such rule for behavioral questions, and quite demonstrably so.

While some questions are indeed very generic, like "Tell me about a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem", quite a number of popular behavioral questions are very specific, like "Describe a time when you improved a process with limited budget" or "Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult team member". This seems like something many people might encounter, but definitely not everyone. Additionally, one is required to be an active participant of the situation and a clear contributor to the solution, which further limits the amount of people who would qualify.

Second, the contention in this article is not that the person will not have an answer, but that it's very difficult to come up with a well thought through answer. Even if you had a situation like that, chances are you have never thought about it under this specific angle, and, thus, your answer will tend to be superficial.