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  • David S Cohen

How Do You Know a Behavioural Question Is a Behavioural Question?

Facebook recently provided a suggested post from LinkedIn about 30 Essential Behavioural Interview Questions. Since that was one of the few times a Facebook suggestion matched my interests, I clicked the link and checked it out. I quickly determined that LinkedIn has a different definition of what makes a Behavioural Question.

It’s a shame when individuals or organizations believe a question is behavioural when it is not. Effective behavioural interview questions mean you know the organization’s values and corresponding behaviours. Before you build the question, you also need to know the values and behaviors for the role or job that will lead to the successful execution of the business strategy. When you ask questions like “What are three things that are most important for you in a job?” then you are no longer in the realm of behavioural questions. Unfortunately, it is all too common that organizations use such questions and believe them to be behavioural. Typically, they provide no better information than the average traditional interview questions. They just elicit the opinions the candidate thinks you want to hear.

In an interview, the task is to collect as much information about the individual in order to determine their fit for the role. Because traditional interview questions provide only the candidate’s opinion without validation, they do not provide the information you require to determine fit. That is why behavioural questions need to be crafted in a way that will provide you with the high-quality information you need to make a more accurate hiring decision.

Below are some tips we have for ensuring that you are producing the best quality behavioural interview questions. There is no 100% solution with any selection tool. But structured behavioural interviewing has repeatedly proven more effective.

Before Writing the Question, You Need to Know the Answer

You can’t haphazardly ask questions in a behavioural interview out of the blue because someone on the Internet said they are good questions. You MUST know what you are looking for before you formulate the question. Prior to writing the question, it is essential you have made sure that all people involved in the hiring understands the behaviour the same way. When writing the question, you also need to avoid including the ‘answer’ in the wording of the question - a common mistake.

articulating the correct behaviours, it To identify the behaviour necessary for success It is important that you state not the outcome but the actual actions that lead to the desired outcome. You can’t write the correct behavioral questions until you know the behaviours that you are seeking.

Could You Please Phrase That in The Form of an Embedded Question?

Behavioural interview questions don’t look like your average interview question, or even your average question. There should be a period at the end of a behavioural interview question, not a question mark. To be most effective, behavioural questions are written in the form of an embedded, or indirect question. In the English language, an embedded question is one that appears in a statement or in another question. Embedded questions are worded in a way that focus the candidate in their thinking. By helping to focus the candidate, you improve the quality of their response.

Don’t kill the open-ended concept with a closed-ended start such as ‘could you’. You also take the ‘edge’ off your behavioural questions when you start with ‘please’.

Can you tell me about a time when you helped to turn around your team’s sales performance?

In this example the company is looking for someone with a sales background who can help grow the business. By leading the behaviour in the question, they provide guidance to the desired response. What they could have asked:

Share a recent time you were not meeting your commitments.

In the question, there is no reference to turning around the sales team. Perhaps it was someone else who turned things around? Perhaps, upon probing, they will say that they learned about the situation from someone else. By making the question ambiguous you force the candidate to fill in the details. You simply leave out the elements of actions you are seeking to hear.

You Won’t Find Unique Cultural Fit with an Off-the-Shelf Question

In a Forbes article (4/25/2012) “The Most Important Reason People Fail in a New Job” Erika Andersen writes that some 89% of candidate fail because of lack of fit to culture. I would agree. Yet I find it fascinating that most organizations with which I interact do not include values questions in the interview process. Often this is because they don’t know the authentic behaviours that represent the real values of the organisation.

How can an off the shelf question help you determine real fit to your authentic culture if no two organizations have the same defined values with the same behaviours? It cannot.

These suggested questions were found on the Internet to help you understand culture fit. However, they will not help you find fit to your company’s specific values, plus they are anything but behavioural:

What are the three things that are most important to you in a job?

What’s the most interesting thing about you that’s not on your resume?

What would make you chose our company over others?

These are all opinion questions. You know nothing of the candidate’s real behaviours from these and similar questions.

If you Google behavioural interview questions you will find about 2,410,000 results in 0.49 seconds. But like most things on the Internet, buyer beware. My review of some of them reveal most are traditional questions focused on opinions, hypothetical responses, or require simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.


David is a globally recognized thought leader in the areas of talent management and corporate culture. If you want to learn more on the structured behavioral interview process a, please read The Talent Edge: A Behavioral Approach to Hiring, Developing, and Keeping Top Performers. If your company is interested in a workshop on how to conducted Structured Behavioral Interview, how to write company specific and authentic behavioural statements, and wish to learn more about an anchored rating scale for more objective and accurate scoring of responses; please contact David directly at david@sagltd.com.

You can read more on David’s perspective on how strong corporate cultures drives passion, productivity, high engagement and pride in his book on values, culture and leadership: Inside the Box.