How to get good at behavioral interviews

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Behavioral interview skills are far more important than most people realize. 

That’s partly because they come up everywhere: practically every interview is behavioral, at least to some degree.

But it’s also because behavioral interviews are usually the first step in a company’s hiring process. Being bad at behavioral interviews has a way of stopping you dead in your tracks — before you even have the chance to show off those shiny technical skills you spent so long developing.

So getting good at behavioral interviews is a must, and yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say things like “I’m just not talented at behavioral interviews,” as if being bad at technical interviews is a medical condition that can’t be cured.

Fortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with hundreds of current and future data scientists at SharpestMinds, it’s that the behavioral interview can absolutely be conquered.

In this post, I want to explain how you can do just that, and why so many people fall into the trap of thinking that it’s impossible.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

I’ve learned that the most effective way to prepare for interviews is to get really good at answering one specific, cliché question: what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

This question comes up *all the time*, and it’s not always asked directly. Most importantly, getting good at answering this question means getting good at introspection, and therefore, behavioral interviews.

So how can you answer this question effectively? Here’s the process I use at SharpestMinds:

  • Start by taking a (free) “big-5” personality test like this one. You’ll get scored along 5 dimensions of personality: introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, agreeableness. 
  • Next, do some soul searching and ask yourself if you agree with your results. 
  • If you do, pick the personality dimension where you’ve earned the most extreme score. Let’s imagine you’ve scored really high on introversion, for example. 
  • Ask yourself: how could my extreme score translate into strengths or weaknesses in a workplace setting? In our example, what strengths and weaknesses do introverts have?
  • Example: introverts get energy from alone time, and it costs them energy to interact with other people. 
     → If you’re an introvert, you probably have an unusually high tolerance for sustained periods of solo work (and that’s a strength when things just need to get done). 
     → However, you’re also less likely to check in with your peers to have them validate your course of action (and that’s a weakness when there’s a risk that you’ll end up spending hours of time working on the wrong thing). 

This is the key: your strengths and weaknesses are things that are explicitly derived from personality traits (like introversion, or openness) that everyone has. With this framing, you can see that you don’t deserve credit for your strengths or blame for your weaknesses: everyone has both by virtue of who they are. 

What behavioral interviews look for is your ability to recognize both, and much more crucially, to develop strategies to address your weakness. That’s the final step in any perfect behavioral interview answer.

The cherry on top

“What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”

“Well, I’m an introvert, and as a result I’m really comfortable putting my head down and focusing solo on a task for an extended period of time. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword: because I tend to avoid socializing unless it’s necessary, I have a bias towards not checking in with others about my work as often as I should. As a result, I’ve learned to make a habit of checking in with myself at regular time intervals to reflect on whether I’ve reached a point where external feedback could help me to stay on track and avoid rabbit holes.

That last sentence is the most important part of any answer you can give to a behavioral question: what strategies have you developed to address your weaknesses? Even if you’re not asked directly, this should absolutely be included any time you talk about your shortcomings, because it shows that you’ve put so much thought into who you are and where you need to improve that you’re actively taking corrective measures to get better.

Anatomy of a perfect answer

A strong behavioral interview answer typically has 3 components:

  1. A reference to personality to set the scene (“I’m an introvert…”)
  2. A reference to relevant strengths or weaknesses that arise because of the personality traits you pointed to (“…so I find that I’m good at X, but struggle with Y…”)
  3. A strategy that you’ve developed in response to those strengths and weaknesses (“…but I’ve found I can lean into that by…”)

This is true of just about any behavioral interview question, and not just the strengths and weaknesses one. For example, imagine being asked what seems like a completely different question: “When have you experienced conflict in the workplace?” 

A good approach would be something like:

Step 0: You probably don’t have a story in mind just yet. So pause and say, “that’s an interesting question, let me take a second to think about this.” → many people don’t realize they can do this, and it actually makes you seem more mature and thoughtful.

Step 1: Set the scene. “I had to work with a co-worker of mine on revamping our recommender system. She was in charge of customer relations, and she was was very detail-oriented and conscientious.”

Step 2: Introduce strengths and weaknesses. “That was great, because it meant that she could really get into the weeds with customers, understand their problems and empathize with them. But it also caused her to struggle with seeing the big picture and understanding how her customer-facing work fit in with our operations more broadly. As a result, she initially insisted on features that we either couldn’t deliver with our budget, or that weren’t technically possible, because she felt they would add value to the users, who she was so focused on.”

Step 3: Describe your strategy. “When that finally clicked, I realized that her empathy could actually be a strength for our project, if I could just get her to empathize with the technical team and understand the constraints they faced as well. So I brought her down to meet the team of devs, and had them explain the basics of how our system was built, and the nature of the demands on their time that each new feature would involve. Hearing them talk about the need to put in weekends or work late evenings to pull off the watered-down version we had at that time turned out to be enough to move the needle, and I finally got her buy-in.”

Just like technical skills, your performance with this framework will improve with practice, so it’s important to do just that. The good news is, you don’t need to talk to someone technically savvy to practice giving good behavioral interview answers: all that matters is that they know introspection when they see it. 

If you have questions about behavioral interviews, feel free to connect with me on Twitter. I’m @jeremiecharris!

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