The ultimate list of behavioral questions from a hiring manager

Behavioral questions are meant for interview candidates to showcase who they are based on the application of leadership, communication, and or collaboration skills.

Behavioral questions are phrased like this:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • What do you do when…
  • Have you ever…
  • Give me an example of…
  • Describe your methods for…

I decided to put together a list of nine behavioral questions which cover one or more questions that you will be asked in interviews. This is from close to 100 different interview experiences both interviewing and also being interviewed in the tech industry. You should expect to have at least one of these questions asked during the interview process.

The list of common behavioral interview questions:

  1. What is your next career or professional goal?
  2. What made you apply for this role?
  3. Describe a time when you’ve had to onboard quickly into a new work environment or project.
  4. Tell me about a difficult project.
  5. How do you manage unexpected changes in requirements or priority?
  6. Describe a time when you’ve made a mistake. How did you deal with the consequences and what lessons did you learn?
  7. Describe a time when you got out of your comfort zone.
  8. Describe a time when you’ve worked with others to accomplish a goal
  9. Tell me about a time when you’ve had to give another teammate constructive feedback?

If you’re struggling with these kinds of questions, practice! A common framework used to respond to behavioral questions is known as the STAR method. Which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Use the rest of this blog to brainstorm and prepare thoughtful responses. I’ve also shared how these questions might be rephrased by an interviewer.

There is no one right way to respond to these questions, but there are ways to stand out. Don’t just copy my examples, use the framework and structure I’m sharing to make this your own. There’s no point in faking or lying in an interview. The person who got the job offer wouldn’t be you at that point, just a fake version of you.

1. What is your next career or professional goal?

This is a similar question to: where do you see yourself in the future?

Give thought to who you are, what you’ve done, and what you want to do next because you don’t apply for a job for no reason. What it is that you’re willing to give up for something better? What do you want from your career? Think about why you’re sitting in front of a hiring manager or going through this interview process. And if you get this question, answer it earnestly.

A pitfall would be to just say you want the job opportunity or title. What happens after the hiring manager hires you? If I’m the hiring manager, will I be able to coach you and will this opportunity be a fulfilling one for your professional development and growth? Will you still be on the team after 2 months, 3 months, and beyond? I’m asking you to let me know what you want and why you’re the one to get there.

Your response can be the reversal of your elevator pitch which includes who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re working towards.

Here’s a sample elevator pitch:

Hi I’m Tiffany, I’m an engineering manager for a data science product team. In the past, I’ve led programs, projects, and devops transformations as an engineer. Now I use everything I learned to help teams deliver their best work, I’m looking for the opportunity to expand my leadership skills by leading teams of teams.

You want to answer the question, lean into the skills you’ve been using, and how it progresses into the next stage of your career. Here’s one way to answer the question:

My professional goal is to gain and expand my leadership by leading teams of teams, it’s something I’m passionate about, coaching, mentoring and guiding other engineers, I’ve led programs, projects, and digital transformations in the past as an engineer and a manager. Now I’m looking for career opportunities that will grow and push me into the next levels of leading teams of teams.

Your answer should be yours. It could be about having more experience owning more parts of a system, leading a technical project, leading the design of systems, or working or gaining experience in a collaborative work environment. Be open, honest, and talk about why you are the one to achieve your goals. This is a question about personal leadership and is a question that only you can answer.

2. What made you apply for this role?

What made you apply for this role may also show up as: Why do you want to work at <company-name>? Or Why are you interested in this role/opportunity? This question requires a response that reflects the amount of thought you’ve put into your professional goals. Some responses could include wanting progress in your career, taking on new challenges at a different level of scale and impact, working with others in a particular industry or sector, or wanting to experience a specific workplace/culture/industry.

It can be tempting or easier to share a response about “needing a job opportunity.” Unfortunately, this type of response does little to show who you are to a manager or interviewer. How will you be in the workplace after getting the job opportunity? The best responses help interviewers envision how well you’d fit into a team after getting the job offer.

3. Describe a time when you’ve had to onboard quickly into a new work environment or project.

This question could also be phrased as one of the following questions: How would you get to know a new work environment or codebase? How would you get to know or make a new team member feel welcomed? Some common elements of a response could include setting up one on one time to meet and learn about the team’s goals, mission, or vision, reading documentation, and attending team calls and asking questions. For program or product managers some things that may help you stand out include understanding the core products and who is involved, the tasks in progress, what is the current team priorities, and is the team fully equipped and supported to implement/deliver the work.

With fundamental collaboration questions such as this, sharing responses that are a bit shy or reserved can be tempting. This question asks interviewees to share how they can be courageous or proactive in the workplace, enough to reach out to others even in new, stressful, or unknown situations. Many leave details, pursuits, and passions out of the interview process for more canned or surface-level responses. Those details, however, are often what managers and interviewers are writing about or looking for when evaluating responses to behavioral questions. Share stories or instances of how you’ve celebrated others, pair programmed to solve a challenge, or gone out of your way to learn something new.

4. Tell me about a difficult project.

This question could also be phrased the following way: Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deal with a product launch, deployment, or a failed project. These kinds of questions ask you to discuss how you would or have navigated challenging environments and to share more about your communication style as it relates to the job function.

I often like to think about first projects of any kind including as a manager, engineer, team, first-of-a-kind product, first time having to take over an existing product, etc. This is because these projects can be challenging for many reasons and this gives you a chance to expand on what those challenges were and what you did in response to the situations. If you’re having a hard time picking a scenario, I would also encourage you all to think about past instances or environments where you might not have been set up to succeed: maybe there wasn’t a lot of documentation, or resources in terms of staff, leadership, or guidance, maybe someone had completed most of the work and did not leave it in a great state, or maybe there wasn’t a lot of time on the project.

The first step is to share and include these challenges in your response and then share who you were during that time. Were you an engineer who was pulled into work that belonged to another team that you weren’t familiar with? Was the project already failing? What was happening? The second step is to then talk about the actions that you had to take. These two steps map to the STAR method. When you type or prepare your responses do a sanity check to make sure they align with the format of Situation, Task, Action, and Result/Reflection. To help you all with this I’ve shared one of my responses to this question.

One project that I worked on was actually one of the first projects I had picked up as a manager. It was challenging for many reasons, for one it was going to be a new product in the sense that my company had seen a few data solutions in the past but never anything that used deep learning or multiple models and approaches to solve a problem. There was also not a ton of ML or AI leadership at this company, so they needed someone to come on and guide the project from a project and execution standpoint and be the glue between the team in Canada developing the models and the team.

Something that I did early on was setting up themes of work to guide milestones, one thing you want to avoid is third parties making key design decisions without the consent of the team, so I served as the glue between our teams to ensure the successful launch of the team.

I also made sure to document and follow up with the different parties so that stakeholders in the team could better understand where we were in the process of delivering the work and how those things could be skills that certain engineers with interest in those skills could target as future work.

And then also set clear success metrics based on the criteria and inputs from stakeholders. So some things may be nice to have, and those went alongside some plans in the organization to host interns this year.

5. How do you manage unexpected changes in requirements or priority?

These questions can also be asked as: How do you handle pressure and shifting deadlines?

This is a technical leadership question that allows interviewers to evaluate how you work with milestones and get work done. This is also a question that can come up often in larger companies where things change often. A hiring manager, project, or product manager may ask this question if they are aware of or actively working through shifting or unexpected changes themselves.

One thing that can be helpful when answering this question is to talk about how you understand or approach change. There will always be change, and this question asks about how you manage it. I like to ask questions about why things are changing, the impacts, and the time frame in which the change operates. Does this work impact future or current work? If I know why a change is happening, I can let others on my team know, or I can make relatively timebound plans based on those changes.

It’s also worthwhile bringing up your own experiences regarding the change. If you have a lot of experiences where shifting priorities was not a good thing, talk about how you’ve learned from that experiences. I’ve worked with fortune 500 enterprise companies that changed priorities after the team had gotten approval and started working. A stakeholder, a director, or a CEO could ask to stop the project, and the team could stop right before meeting a deadline. One week later the same stakeholder could ask them to start the project back up with one less week to complete the project. Getting to a good stopping place or reiterating work in progress could have prevented frustrations across the team. You could be acknowledging something that wasn’t considered beforehand, and this could save a lot of time and effort. These kinds of turning points don’t happen without conversation, and individuals that communicate well are invaluable to teams that will inevitably experience change.

6. Describe a time when you’ve made a mistake. How did you deal with the consequences and what lessons did you learn?

This question could also be asked as an invitation to describe a difficult learning process, product failure, or outage (these last two are usually for more senior level roles, so don’t worry if you don’t have the experience to share. For those situations where an interviewer asks you for an experience, you don’t have, be honest, and admit you don’t have that specific experience they’re looking for, but you can share how you would handle the situation hypothetically). Any of these questions can be answered with the STAR method.

This is your chance to also shine in how you’ve changed your viewpoint following your experience. Below is an example of how I moved from being a yes-man to a leader unlike anyone else at the companies I work at.

“I made a mistake when I first became a manager. I wanted to get everything right, so I would ask anyone and everyone for some advice. If someone suggested reading material or approaches I would follow them all the time. Even when I struggled to process the different approaches and advice I was getting. I quickly learned, however, that I was hired here for a reason and that I needed to focus on getting it right with my team, it’s not just about being right. Since then, I’ve done more to be authentic and choose actions that align with me based on my own observations and insights. I don’t second guess that because I trust myself to be someone who is responsible for my team’s success. It’s led to also being more experimental these days and creating new processes that work better for my team and our work and also introducing new and fun activities that hadn’t existed before.”

Sometimes you’ll be asked to pivot your response to be more relevant to a particular evaluation or interview session. For example, a behavioral interview conducted by an engineering manager for another engineering manager role evaluates a candidate’s responses differently from an engineer evaluating the same candidate, so your responses should be adjusted accordingly. If this question asked specific examples of how you handled a production outage or technical mistake, I would adjust this conversation to share more about the migration projects I inherited as an engineering manager. Everyone runs into the mistake of sometimes missing a key process. For example, in one of the companies I worked at, I did not ask about the post-shutdown process outlined for a particular service, and a miscommunication with the product manager on timeframes led to issues that impacted another team.

Some other ways to discuss your growth could be about overcoming imposter syndrome during a time in your life or getting over a learning curve. You want to also talk about what actions led to better results. Maybe you had to shift your mindset, participate in a retrospective, document your findings, or implement new processes. These are commonplace activities in tech. Our processes are only there to guarantee a standard level of productivity and output for the team. As things change, we need to review what is working well, what isn’t, and what we can do better.

7. Describe a time when you got out of your comfort zone.

This question is relatively straightforward. You may also get questions about what new skills you are working on, what is a skill you’d like to improve, or what do you do to learn and grow outside of work? To answer this question, share the context of what you set out to do and what you did. Talk about how you approached learning and what you got out of the experience.

You can share an example like how you got out of your comfort zone to start demoing or talking about your work for the first time. You can talk about leading your first milestone or meeting. Below is a response that I may give to this kind of question as a manager interviewing for management roles. It’s a bit more complex, but it speaks to how I am as a leader. It was fun setting out the intention to learn more about myself as a leader and experiment with new approaches. I found those answers because I wanted to know how many people I could coach privately during a merger and hiring freeze at my company.

I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in January of this year when I began streaming and coaching on Twitch. I like pushing myself outside of my comfort zone because it’s a neat way to expand your perspective and understanding of yourself. I also wanted an outlet for processing my thoughts and reflections as a leader.

I learned two key things:
1. Successful people set boundaries. They have the self-awareness to acknowledge when behaviors and interactions are harmful, and they communicate these aspects as feedback for future improvement. You won’t always have someone there to help you set those boundaries, and it takes strong leadership.

2. Your voice matters. In having a platform, I realize the importance and impact of my words. Sometimes at work, we’re stuck or limited to the impact that we’re scoped at, but when you reach out to other people when you show up, you get the chance to have a ripple effect on someone else. And that ripple effect doesn’t have to be anything more profound than making someone laugh, but it could be something like inspiring someone to finish their degree program or an abandoned project which changes other people’s lives.

8. Describe a time when you’ve worked with others to accomplish a goal.

This question is a collaboration question that may also be phrased in the following manner: describe a time when you’ve had to work with other engineers to deliver a project or describe a time when you’ve had to work with people who have different backgrounds, different perspectives or are in a different team/function from your own.

You can answer any of these questions with reasonably the same response. This question requires interviewers to discuss how they’ve managed to work with others to accomplish a goal.

An ineffective response would indicate no interest in meeting with others, asking questions, or being a part of the collaboration needed to deliver the work. I relate this to dragging a child across a room. Some managers or teams are more patient and are okay with coaching or helping others gain experience in this area. But it may not be a good fit for other groups, and interviewers use this question to understand how you interact with people who may not be your direct manager, teammate, etc. An effective response showcases your level of social maturity in the workplace. Effective responses will help interviewers understand what people say about you behind closed doors. This idea of social currency is important when decisions are made without you there. Will there be anyone to advocate for you? Examples include who we want for this new project/opportunity, who we promote this year, and who we want to move to another team?

This question will come up for teams known or wanting to be known to be excellent or well known in or outside of an organization, think famous research groups, or companies with notable tech talent. These teams don’t accomplish or can’t accomplish their goals without collaboration. This question allows you to showcase how you bring others together to achieve something that wouldn’t be possible by yourself. This kind of question is an opportunity to highlight a major accomplishment in your career since most collaborations are our greatest achievements when looking at factors such as quality and scale of impact. I would also end the conversation with the opportunities that this experience led to in terms of future collaborations, work, and impact.

9. Tell me about a time when you’ve had to give another teammate constructive feedback?

This can also be asked as: How have you handled a disagreement while working in a team?

These questions ask you to share situations where you had to respond in meaningful ways. The important concept in selecting a situation is the conflict itself. Was work added or changed last minute, was there a disagreement or miscommunication, why was it there and what did you do about it?

There is no standard response to what you did about it. It’s okay if you didn’t do anything but later learned that you could have done things differently. Some ways you can or have managed situations include delegating conversation, checking in with others, accepting help, making sure people feel heard, making sure someone had time for lunch, and if not taking a break. I’ve shared one of my responses in order to showcase how you could craft a response to this question.

I’ve had to give some tough feedback on team interactions. Once when I first started in my role as a manager, there was someone who was more tenured at the company who made a remark about the compensation of my engineer during one of our team status calls. This person had suggested to one of my engineering reports that they should be asking me for more compensation. This was clearly inappropriate for many reasons and I had set up some time immediately to better understand why this person would express this publically on one of our calls. I reminded them of the process for merit-based increases and 360 feedback and how I had invited them to share through our channels. I reiterated my commitment to being a manager who advocates and promotes equity and noted that there hadn’t been someone on the team prior to this to do this work. I let them know that this feedback is to keep team interactions more helpful than harmful in the long run and they were quick to apologize and respect that my role is to help develop and nurture my team’s career development. Conversations such as this are important when stepping into situations where people are looking for strong leadership.

In this category of questions that are centered around communicating feedback, you may encounter a question that asks you to share a time when you’ve received constructive feedback. You can craft or prepare a response that showcases a relevant or important skill that you have developed through feedback. My response below shares a time when I received feedback about Git/version control, a skill that many software engineers need when working on a shared codebase.

I think receiving and giving feedback gets to be a gift you can respond timely and with actionable steps. It’s helpful to have a rapport with people you work with or who you care about who give you helpful feedback on how to improve because they’re often people that know our strengths well too. So I try to approach it with the mindset that this is meant to inspire and make room for better. At the start of my career, I remember getting feedback on my PRs from a more senior engineer on my project. And I remember thinking I was going to get berated or maybe shamed for how I was doing them at the time. I admitted I actually didn’t have experience in it outside of what I learned working on my own projects. And the nice thing was the engineer asked me if I had ever gotten someone to walk through general practices for git workflows before. And it led to me understanding much more than how to write a good PR, how do I handle merge conflicts, rollbacks, stashing, etc. All of these different scenarios would come up in the future too and I noticed that I had applied what this senior engineer had taught me and now everywhere I was also able to teach other engineers on my future projects and set a good example.

Concluding Thoughts

It can be challenging to navigate behavioral interviews and the questions posed by interviewers and companies. This blog post shared nine questions that evaluate interview candidates on leadership, collaboration, and communication skills, providing a framework for preparing and understanding what these questions are asking. I’ve also shared some tips for interviewing authentically so that you can share your responses without feeling like you didn’t get to showcase who you are.

The better someone gets to know you through an interview process, the more likely they will evaluate if you’re the right fit for the team or job opportunity. And sometimes it’s not the right fit, and that is fine too. It means nothing about you. It’s ok to meet great people in an interview process and walk away from that time spent knowing that you will not be working with them in that opportunity that was shared. Keep learning, striving, and showing up for what you want, what you want. The perfect opportunity for you at the moment you need it — exists, because you exist.

Behavioral Interviews Live Stream Replay: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1530005007

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Tiffany Jachja

Tiffany Jachja

Software Engineering Manager covering topics on software, personal development, and career.