I have these discussions daily, in general discussions, and in preparation for interviews and other advancement opportunities.

The main distinction between behavioral and situational questions in an interview is that behavioral questions ask how something was handled in the past and situational questions are forward-looking to see how you might handle a specific situation.

Both are best answered with the four elements.

  1. Describe the situation with some specificity and clearly lay out any assumptions you’re making. 
  2. Explain what went wrong or what occurred. 
  3. Outline the actions you took to understand and address the situation
  4. Lay out the results (and wisdom gained)

Hard Behavioral Questions

Tell me about a time when you worked on a dysfunctional team. What was your role in the dysfunction and what did you do to make the situation better? 
The interviewer is looking for several things – your comfort level with being vulnerable and admitting that not everything works well all the time. They are looking at your level of self-awareness, a check on your ego and maturity, and hoping to see a willingness to be accountable and accept responsibility while also respecting others and authentically trying to understand other’s perspectives.

A great answer will identify the various factors that created the situation. It will highlight that there are two or more sides to the story and you’ll share your perspective and at least one other. You might also demonstrate how initial impressions or assumptions were wrong and that you approached the situation from the position of trying to uncover and understand versus the tactic of making excuses or placing blame.

Tell me about a time when you were given unrealistic goals without the appropriate resources to achieve them. How did you feel, what did you do, what happened?
The interviewer is looking to see what kind of grit, determination, and resolve you have. They are watching for cues of immaturity or excuse making. All managers expect to achieve great results with minimal investments and so they are looking for clues that you might be a squeaky wheel or high maintenance as an employee. Managers have a lot on their plate and they want to hire people who they can trust and train, and who can get things done without too much handholding.

A great answer will include a statement such as, “Well, in businesses large and small, we’re all being asked to do more with less. It’s the way of business, driving shareholder value, and becoming leaner and more efficient. If a company can’t do that, they’ll get clobbered by a competitor.”

A good answer would show creativity and innovative thinking on ways to “hack” around the lack of resources to piece something together that might not be pretty but serves its purpose.  A good answer accepts stretch goals as a way to achieve and exceed average performance. A good answer is one that’s authentic and acknowledges that you’re human. You might pause and say, “At the end of the day, I’m gonna work my butt off to meet or exceed those goals and if I can’t, it won’t be from a lack of effort. Moreover, I’m an optimist – if I can’t hit the goal, I want to be the closest one to doing so….that’s the next best thing I can do and hopefully push others in the process”. 

Hard Situational Questions

Situational questions look ahead toward circumstances that you’ll likely face on the job and ask you to explain what you would do.

1) A manager from another department asks for your help with a couple of tasks that will take you several hours to complete. They prefer that you don’t discuss it with your manager so feathers aren’t ruffled. What do you do? 
The interviewer wants to see how you organize your thoughts around an issue of integrity and transparency. They want to see how you process what factors should be considered and how you choose to address the situation. They are looking to see what gravity you place on the situation. A black and white answer can be as successful as an answer that lays out where the shades of gray are.

A good answer will identify the main issues – why is the request not going through your manager and your comfort level in asking that question. A good answer will demonstrate that you engage your emotional intelligence and do a ‘gut-check’ on what the best path forward is. If the circumstances warrant it, you might also ask someone with more institutional knowledge than you, what the best course of action would be.

2) You’re working on a team assignment and team members cannot agree on the best path forward. What do you do? Describe the role you’d play and why.
The interviewer is trying to get a read on your leadership and teamwork style. Do you listen or speak up? Do you accept your role in the dysfunction or do you blame others for blocking or resisting progress?  They want to see how you approach interpersonal communication and conflict.

A good answer will include language like “understanding others’ perspectives”, “empathy”, and “diversity”. While groups can be difficult to navigate, the collective wisdom of a team can produce better results than the sum of their parts.