Job Interview Tips

How to answer the toughest behavioral interview questions

Written by Kate Lopaze

When you’re preparing for an interview, chances are you’ve got the usual stuff down: your resume, talking points, stellar eye contact, and small talk. Those are easy—you can practice them in the mirror or with a trusted interview prep buddy. But what happens when you get a bit of a curveball, like difficult behavioral interview questions that you weren’t expecting?

Behavioral interview questions (“how would you handle…”, “tell me about a time when…”, etc.) are pretty common in interviews these days. Interviewers like them because they can tell you a lot about how a person thinks and reacts on their feet. They’re also more conversational, outside of the rote resume points and talking about the job. But sometimes they can be extra challenging—especially when you’re asked for a personal opinion or way of doing things.

Some examples of extra-challenging behavioral interview questions are things like, “How do you like to be managed?” or “What kind of management style do you respond to?” These aren’t so out of left field, but for most of us, questions like that tend to fall outside of our interview comfort zone of talking about our experience and accomplishments. It’s also tough because this kind of question speaks to interpersonal dynamics—there’s no clear right answer, but you’ll be judged nonetheless. So what’s the best way to tackle them?

Think about past experiences, and gather examples

When you’re asked about your professional preferences, you need to be able to think of examples to back them up—just like any other aspect of an interview. If you’re asked what kind of management style you like best, you can’t just say, “The kind that lets me do my job most efficiently” and be done with it. Take a moment to reflect on some of your best and worst managers, and use real-life examples that show why you feel the way you do.

Always keep the tone positive and professional

Even if you’re asked an opinion question, this is not the time to air grievances. If you want to say something along the lines of, “I can’t stand a micromanager because I don’t work well with someone breathing down my neck like my last boss,” think of ways to spin it positively and productively. For example, you could go with, “My last manager was very hands-on, but I find that I am able to work faster and smarter when I’m given space, with occasional check-ins.”

Do your homework ahead of time

You can’t anticipate exactly what kind of behavioral interview questions you’ll get, but you can do some due diligence on the company and its culture ahead of time. Check the company website for the official line, but also look at sites like Glassdoor to see what employees say about the culture at the company. Once you have a sense of the kind of general management style and priorities, you can tailor your answers to align with that style.

Take a minute to organize what you want to say

This is a good rule of thumb for any interview question. You don’t want there to be an awkwardly long silence, but starting to ramble without planning what you want to say is not helpful either. It’s perfectly okay to say something like, “That’s a great question,” and take a few beats to consider what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Your answer doesn’t need to be overly complicated or detailed. You just need the what (I like a manager who…) + the why (I get better results when I have the confidence and agency to manage projects on my own…). If the interviewer wants more information, he or she will ask follow-up questions. You really don’t need to launch into a detailed soliloquy.

The trick with any behavioral interview question is to take the time to consider the question thoughtfully and organize your thoughts a bit in your head. Because there’s usually no right or wrong answer, the interviewer will be watching to see how you answer. As long as you show confidence and thoughtfulness, that will go a long way.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.