Behavioural interviews - talk about failures to win the job!

Yes, employers want to know about your mistakes and failures to assess your potential as a member of their team. How you perform when things go wrong provides a good idea of your values and attitude and how you would fit into their team.

Importance of 'fit'

Fit "is the key to employee engagement, performance and productivity. Employees who identify more with their company are happier, experience greater job satisfaction, are more committed, perform better and are more likely to stay with their organization," according to UK-based HR software developer, BreatheHR.

Richard Branson has been quoted as saying "At Virgin, we hire for attitude. If they've got the right attitude, we can give them the skills. If they've got a wrong attitude, it doesn't matter how skillful they are, they will be a liability." And Richard Branson is not alone. Your attitude sows how you would fit into their team and this is usually at least as important as the technical skills required for the role.

"Hire for attitude, not aptitude. Knowledge and skills are certainly important for making a long-term hire, but there's also no discounting cultural fit," writes Jerome Ternynck, the founder and CEO of SmartRecruiters.

Behavioural interviews seek to discover how you behaved in the past in the understanding that this would be a good predictor of your attitude, of how you will perform in the future. They assess your performance when things are going well and when things go wrong. Your behaviour under stress is significantly more revealing of your attitude than your behaviour when everything is going well.

Unfortunately many applicants are embarrassed to talk about their mistakes and failures and, as a result, give ineffective answers when asked about them. So let's talk about how to answer behavioural questions both when things went well and when they didn't.

Don't be embarrassed by your failures

It is important not to be embarrassed by your mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable if you are someone who is continually trying to improve systems and trying new ways to get things done. To quote a certain Mr Phelps (1889), "Someone who never makes a mistake will never make anything much".

Failure is not the opposite of success; it's an inevitable part of success. "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new," said Albert Einstein.

We learn from failure and it's how we learn from our mistakes, how we handle failures, that demonstrate our determination to succeed.

How to answer behavioural questions?

Behavioural questions are those which ask you to describe a specific situation in which you performed a challenging task. They usually start something like this: "Tell us about a time when ...?"

By asking behavioral interview questions, interviewers want to learn more about your thought process, and the strategies and skills you use to solve problems. This means that answers to them require careful preparation. The first step is to anticipate what the questions might be about so read the job description and note the key skills and personal qualities listed, the selection criteria. Also note any other behaviours which seem to be emphasised in other parts of the position description. List them.

Against that list, jot down occasions when you have used the relevant skills or behaviours. Think of times when you have used them successfully and also remember to include times when, in spite of your best efforts, you were not successful but which you learnt from.

Then, compose STARs to tell the stories about those occasions. STAR stands for Situation Task Action Result. A STAR tells the whole story. The Situation you faced, the Task required to fix the situation, the Action you took and the Result you achieved.

Once your STARs have been completed, we can start using them to prepare answers to possible behavioural interview questions. There is a useful 3-step process to preparing answers to interview questions and the process applies equally well to answering behavioural questions.

Let us take a look at answering a typical behavioural question. Assume for the moment that you are applying for an administrative position in a major sports club and you are asked, "What would you do if the Club's Chairman has just phoned to say that he will be dropping into the Club in 15 minutes to see the Manager and you know that the Manager is out undertaking some private business?"

Use the three-step process. Step 1, identify the real question; 'This question is asking about my loyalty to my boss as well as to the organization.' Step 2, answering the real question, could be something like this: "I would say to the Chairman that the Manager is occupied at the moment and ask him to delay his arrival by 30 minutes. Then I would phone the Manager on his mobile to tell him of the Chairman's impending visit."

As it stands, that is a satisfactory answer but it would be so much stronger if you had faced a similar situation in the past which would allow you to bring in a STAR for step 3.

"A situation like this occurred in my current job about three months ago. It was just before Christmas and my Manager had a cousin from the UK coming to stay with her. She always worked hard, often working through her lunch hour. However, this one day, she had three-quarters of an hour between appointments and she took the opportunity to slip out to buy a present for her cousin. Shortly after she had left, the General Manager phoned asking for her. Because I knew how much my Manager did for the organization, I covered for her by saying that she was very tied up in a project for the moment but could I ask her to ring him back as soon as she was free, probably in about 20 minutes? The result was that the General Manager was satisfied with that, my Manager was very grateful for my covering for her, she phoned the GM and received instructions for a substantial task which she and I completed before going home."*

That answer is 170 words long and would require well under two minutes to tell and, importantly, it would hold the interviews' interest from beginning to end.

How to talk about mistakes and failures

Remember that mistakes and failures, made in good faith, are steps on the path to success. Be prepared to talk about them openly and make sure that you include what you learnt in the Result.

Describe real mistakes, real failures, even if, at the time, you were very embarrassed. And take full responsibility. One of the purposes behind asking about failure and mistakes is to find out how open and trustworthy you are, whether or not you are confident enough to take the rap. What employers don't want are those who will try to push the blame on to other people.

Sometimes interviewers will ask paired questions, the first asking for a success story and the second a failure. The first question could be: "Tell us about a time when you were able to motivate a team to achieve a particular task"; the second, seeking contrary evidence, something like this: "Tell us about a time when you were unable to motivate a team for a particular task. What did you learn from this experience?"

Let's look at possible answers to both these questions. Take the first one first.

"I was asked to organize our trade stall at last year's national conference. I called the team in together to brainstorm how best we could achieve this and to work out who should do what and when. We knew that the task would require quite a lot of weekend work but because all the team members felt ownership of the whole project, they volunteered willingly to work in their own time and they worked very efficiently. As a result, we were able to put up an excellent display that gained us excellent exposure and generated a lot of interest from other organizations, interest that has since been translated into increased business."*

And now the contrary evidence answer.

"I was also asked to organize the trade stall for the previous year's conference and I didn't manage it nearly as well. Instead of involving all team members in the planning process right from the outset, I adopted a top-down approach. Because I had never done this sort of thing before, I asked team members to undertake tasks that proved to be counter-productive, tasks that they recognized to be inadvisable. And the team members were initially unwilling to put in the weekend work to complete something that they didn't believe would work. When I realized that they knew far better than I did how best to make it work, I changed my approach. Then, through seeking the advice from team members and getting them 'on board' so to speak, we did manage a creditable display - but it was nothing like as good as last year's effort because I had left it too late. However, because of the generous way the team had put in once I had changed my approach, I invited them and their families round for a barbecue after the conference and we all had a good laugh at my earlier efforts."*

"What did I learn from that experience? I learnt that a team works best when everyone is involved from the start. I also learnt to be willing to seek advice and ideas from subordinates, especially if they have more experience than I do in a particular area."

This second answer is quite long at 241 words but it would still take less than two minutes to tell and it would certainly hold the interviewers' interest from start to finish.

Include failures and mistakes in your Directory of Achievements

In my most recent article, we talked about creating a Directory of Achievements. This provides a ready source of achievement statements relevant to the selection criteria to help compose effective job applications and winning answers to interview questions.

Being aware that you are likely to be asked to describe failures and mistakes, make sure that these, too, are included in the Directory.

The wrap up

Failures and mistakes are not something to be ashamed of. Everyone who uses initiative, everyone with drive, is going to make mistakes or have projects which fail. The important thing is not that they failed or made a mistake, it's their reasoning behind the error, and how they handled it. That is what will demonstrate values and attitude and that's what the interviewers want to be able to assess your fit into the organization.

* The sample answers to behavioural questions used in this article have been taken from my book, 'How to Get a Good Job After 50 - 2nd edition.'