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How to Answer Competency-Based Interview Questions

How to Answer Competency-Based Interview Questions

Competency-based questions are one of the most popular categories of interview questions, and not without good reason. They can reveal a lot about a candidate’s skills, past experiences, and mindset. These questions are especially common in graduate recruitment and early interviewing process. The best way to answer competency-based interview questions (aka C.B.I. questions) is to structure your answers using the S.T.A.R. technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result).

As you go through the article, you will discover what competency-based questions are and why recruiters ask them. You will also learn more about the S.T.A.R. technique and its proper use. The overall goal of this blog post is for you to become familiar with this type of question and learn how to give structured answers. Let’s begin!

What are competency-based interview questions?

Competency-based interview questions are questions that ask for real-life examples of a candidate’s skill. Even though they might seem challenging, these questions give you an excellent opportunity to showcase your experience and way of thinking. Recruiters ask these questions to identify skills, such as:

  • Communication
  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Risk-taking
  • Adaptability
  • Conflict resolution
  • Teamwork
  • Decision Making
  • Flexibility

Best practice formula for answering competency-based questions: S.T.A.R technique

The S.T.A.R technique is the most recommended to go with when you respond to such questions. This technique is easy to understand and implement naturally, just with practice. Breaking down the acronym we have:

  • Situation – What was the context or the challenge?
  • Task – What did you have to do?
  • Action – How did you do it?
  • Results – What was the outcome you reached?

Using these four components to shape your story, you can provide the interviewer with a focused and compelling answer about a previous work experience. 

Competency-based interview questions and examples

We’ve covered the basics. Now, let’s see some examples of competency-based interview questions. For each question, we will give you the skill that’s been evaluated and guidelines on how to answer. If you feel like it, read the question, try to identify that skill, and think of an answer before considering our suggestion. Here are fifteen examples of competency-based interview questions:

1) Tell me about a time when you led a challenging project. What was that, and how did you manage it?

Yes, this question asks directly about your management skills, but how would you showcase them? Think of a time when you successfully led a team – it could either be from your professional or personal experience. Following the S.T.A.R. method, state the project/case, the goal you had to achieve, how you managed the team, and the results of your actions.

Example Answer: “I was the leader of the localization project for the company’s product. For this project, we were a team of five that had to do everything within two months and had a low budget. At first, I came up with a structured plan, asked for the team’s contribution, and then distributed tasks amongst members. For every turnaround, we quickly found solutions and delivered the project on time and within budget. I enjoyed that project!”

2) Describe one time when you helped your manager solve a problem. What did you do?

This question seeks your problem-solving skills. This is a great opportunity to showcase how you thought and solved a problem your manager couldn’t solve. Describe the problem, the proposed solution(s) you proposed, and the outcome. Don’t forget to point out how you combined your experience and knowledge with the situation to overcome this problem.

Example Answer: “We were using a software that didn’t meet our needs and my manager wanted a solution as soon as possible. Within a week I managed to do comprehensive research, talk with multiple software providers, and found three alternatives that covered all of our needs and were cost-effective. We ended up switching to one of my proposals.”

3) Tell me about something you learned that you applied to your work.

With this question, you can highlight your transferable and adaptability skills. You can use a previous working experience, a course, or even a blog post you read that inspired you to apply a practice at work. Describe the primary source of knowledge, how you acquired it, and how you successfully implemented it in a situation.

Example Answer: “At college, I took a lesson about Corporate Philosophy that had to do with Corporate Social Responsibility. When I heard that our HR department sought ways of giving back to society, I wrote a brief paper with suggestions of what they could do. Three out of five suggestions are still among the company’s practices.”

4) Can you give me an example of a difficult situation with a customer? How did you manage it?

Stress management, communication skills, and problem-solving are the primary objectives of this question. Same as before, state the situation, how you felt about it, what was your thought process before taking action, and the final steps you took. However, consider presenting the opposite side’s perspective too (customer). Speaking poorly of someone can lead to negative feedback for you.

Example Answer: “Once I had to deal with a very frustrated customer at the retail shop I was working. I had been working there only for a week, which stressed me out. After carefully listening to the customer, I figured out that the frustration was not about the company I was working for but had to do with personal issues. I offered some water and asked if I could do something to help. We sat together for a while, and the customer ended up hugging me and apologized for the burst.”

5) How did you increase revenue in the companies you’ve worked with?

Time to talk about performance. Companies seek people with problem-solving and creativity skills who can bring results at the end of the day. Pick a company you have worked with, describe your role, and how it is connected with the company’s revenue. After that, describe a process, strategy, or practice you implemented that led to increasing the company’s profit. Make sure you don’t provide details in terms of numbers, as this could lead to confidentiality issues.

Example Answer: “I was hired to recruit 60 people for a company within three months. I was the only recruiter on the HR team, and I had to deal with a ton of work. Thankfully, I managed to design a process that we used to hire 67 people and most of which are in the company for two years now. Some of these people were top talent, leading the company to a 10% growth. I guess I could take some credit for suggesting these people.”

6) Do you have an example of when your manager wasn’t happy with your performance? How did you discuss it, and what did you do differently?

If this hasn’t happened to you, you can skip this, but if you have such experience, read on, and find out how to handle such a question. This question, of course, examines communication, flexibility, adaptability skills, and motivation. It’s OK not to bring the expected results. The key is how you handle the case beyond results to get better. State the issue, how you communicated it with your manager, and how you overcame it.

Example Answer: “I was a junior developer in my first year and I couldn’t work as fast as the rest of the team. At the time, this stressed me out and I ended up making many coding errors. I ended up discussing it with my manager and seeking ways to solve the problem. For one month, I was just checking the code of my teammates and at the same time took some online courses. This helped me a lot because I studied the logic behind the code. Two years later, I became the team leader.”

7) Tell me about a time when you worked successfully in a team environment.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Describe a time when you had to do something with a group of people, how you distributed tasks, how you overcame difficulties, and of course, the result. Remember, this is not the time to brag about your leadership skills.

Example Answer: “I used to work at a digital marketing agency. As you might have heard, agencies have a fast-paced environment, and you have to be flexible and fast to succeed. Once, we had an e-commerce website project for a client, which included design and data entry of the products’ pricing. We had delivered the project on time, but when they published it on their website, they realized that they had given us the wrong pricing. Although I was the account manager, we worked all together and restored the damage within an hour.”

8) Can you tell me of a time when you had to make a difficult decision?

That’s a tough one. Difficult decisions can be stressful and require communication, analytical, and risk-taking skills. The important thing here is to define the thought process and all you had to consider before taking action. Once you present all these and the outcome, you can also say one or two words about what you would do better.

Example Answer: “As a manager, I had to choose to promote only one of my team members. Even though I tried to explain that both of them deserved a promotion, only one of them could be promoted. I ended up selecting the more mature one who had been longer with the business since I couldn’t find another way to choose. In the end, the person who didn’t get the promotion joined a high-tech company and later thanked me for not promoting. This might have ended up well, but next time, I will push more for my team to get what they deserve.”

9) Tell me about a time when you had to work under pressure.

The times of turmoil finally pay off! The ability to stay calm, make quick decisions, and manage work effectively is a strong asset for the employer. Think of a stressful situation at work, maybe an unexpected change occurred, or you had to meet a tight deadline. Share how you thrived under such a situation and the results you achieved. Remember to underline how you cope with stress at the workplace.

Example Answer: “At my last job, my manager asked me to present a sales pitch for our collection to an important buyer arriving in just four hours. At first, I felt a bit of a panic, but quickly shifted my entire focus on getting things in place. Those four hours were stressful yet rewarding. I reached out to concerned managers for their input, pulled up our old sales presentations, and managed to put together a powerful pitch, which got us the order. In challenging situations, reminding myself of the end goal, communicating openly with my colleagues, and preparing an action plan helps me stay on track.”

10) Can you tell me about a time when you came up with a creative solution for a problem?

The interviewer wants to assess your creativity and problem-solving skills. Recall a time when you thought outside the box and came up with a great suggestion at your workplace. Employers love candidates who are innovative and can implement their ideas. While answering the question, keep in mind to highlight your creative approach rather than the challenge itself.

Example Answer: “While we were working on a team project, two of my colleagues were having trouble understanding what the other did, which was leading to a lot of blame game, and as a result, the whole team’s performance was suffering. I suggested that these two people switch their responsibilities for ten days to understand each other’s perspectives better. At the end of ten days, both of my co-workers’ attitudes changed drastically. They not only appreciated but helped each other out a lot more!”

11) Tell me about a time when you had to deal with change at the workplace.

Change is inevitable in any business, and an employer wants to know if you can embrace it. With this question, they aim to test your adaptability skills and your open-mindedness. Think of an example when you had to undergo a change at your workplace, and you responded to it successfully. Explain how the change impacted your work, and how you maintained a positive outlook throughout the transition.

Example Answer: “When I worked as a sales representative at ABC company, a new manager joined us who completely changed our sales process by introducing new software systems. Since our team was used to doing things in a certain way for years, it was a big change. While some of my colleagues were apprehensive, I was eager to adopt the new system, especially if it made the workflow more efficient. I realized the sooner we learn, the better, and hence, asked the IT department to organize a training seminar for us. They agreed, and within a week, we all had successfully transitioned to the new system.”

12) Tell me about a time you supported a co-worker who was struggling.

With this question, the interviewer wants to understand if you are empathetic, supportive, and above all, a team player. In your answer, explain how you realized your co-worker needed help and how you extended support. But remember not to say that you helped a colleague at the expense of your own work. Employers want to see if you can help out a colleague without losing sight of your own goals.

Example Answer: “At ABC Company, I worked in the accounts payable team, ensuring our payments were made timely. This one time, I observed my colleague in the accounts receivable team struggling to get payments from our clients and I offered to help get her work up to speed. So, one day I made collection calls with her, knowing my work could wait until the next day. Seeing her discouraged and demotivated, I felt it was the right thing to do. I also shared with her some tools and techniques I used to keep my work organized.”

13) Tell me about a time you failed.

Discussing your failures in a setting where you are supposed to sell yourself may feel unsettling. But this is not a trick question; employers use it to evaluate your ability to manage failures, fix problems, and adapt. While answering, remember to discuss a real failure. But, don’t bring up something which can make the employer question your suitability for the target job. Also, highlight key takeaways from your experience and how you improved yourself.

Example Answer: “At my first job, I was overly keen to impress my clients, so I agreed to complete their project within five days. However, I had underestimated the time it would take to do the work, so I missed my deadline by two days. My client was initially understandably displeased. But since the quality of the work met her expectations, in the end, she left positive feedback. The experience was a powerful learning lesson for me. I realized I needed to be more conservative in setting deadlines. I also set up a tracking system to assess the progress of each task, so I don’t fall behind. Since then, I’ve always delivered my projects well before the schedule.”

14) Have you ever had to work with someone you didn’t get along with?

Answering this question can be challenging, as it requires you to avoid speaking ill of your colleague while still explaining your difficulties. Your answer will provide the employer insights into your communication skills and flexibility. While answering, give a specific example of a situation, speak objectively while explaining the context, take ownership of your actions, and mention how you resolved the problem. Remember not to portray yourself as a victim.

Example Answer: “In my present role as a marketing manager, I faced difficulties working with an analyst from the data team. The analyst was required to send me analysis reports as early as possible, so we in the marketing team could make the right decisions. Although the reports were always precise, he frequently fell behind in his duties, severely delaying our marketing campaigns. Eventually, I asked him out for lunch and explained our situation in detail. Realizing the importance of the task, he agreed to make it a priority. Since then, we’ve worked smoothly.”

15) Tell me about a time you adapted your communication style.

Yes, this question directly asks about your communication and adaptability skills. Being able to adapt your communication style shows the employer that you are self-aware and that you care. Pick a work-based situation where you modified how you speak or write to get your message across to the target audience.

Example Answer: “In my current job, I had to work with a client who was a brief communicator, and for the project at hand, I required a lot of information from her. During my course of emailing her, I realized she is really to the point and doesn’t seem to use many words. To obtain the necessary information, I began reframing my questions in a way that required her to provide specific details of the situation. I also suggested communicating over voice notes, which proved to be more effective.”

Bonus list (Competency-based interview questions)

Are you searching for more competency-based questions? Here is a list of 15 additional interview questions which are popular in job interviews:

  • Describe a time when you had to manage many responsibilities. How did you handle it? 
  • Give me an example of a time when you made a mistake, and how did you handle it? 
  • Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to achieve something. 
  • Tell me about a time when you had to think on your feet. 
  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a senior’s decision or approach.
  • Give an example of when you convinced someone at work toward your point of view. How did you do it? 
  • Recall a time when a coworker was doing something wrong. How did you respond? 
  • Recall a time when you communicated effectively in a challenging situation. 
  • What has been your most significant achievement so far? 
  • Give an example of a time when you had to improvise to achieve a goal. 
  • Tell me about a time you received criticism you thought was unfair. 
  • Describe a situation when you were unable to meet a deadline/target. What did you do?
  • Recall a time when you wanted to quit. How did you keep yourself motivated? 
  • Describe a time when doing the right thing impacted yourself or your career. Would you do the same thing again? 
  • Describe a time when you thought it was you against everyone. What did you do? 

Tips for answering competency-based interview questions

Here are a few tips on how to draft winning responses for competency-based questions:

1) Mine the job description: Scan the target position’s job description to identify the skills the employer is looking for in the candidate. Then, come up with relevant stories (using the STAR method) around the skills. For example, if the role you’re applying for involves a lot of collaboration, you should prepare a story of when you successfully worked in a team.

2) Be positive: When explaining a challenging situation (for example, a time when you had to deal with a difficult client), try not to linger on the frustration you may have felt. Don’t criticize or blame the other individual. Remember, these questions are about you, not about anyone else. Focus on the actions you undertook to manage the problem and your learnings from the experience.

3) Finish with a conclusion: Sometimes, your answers may not properly fit the STAR format, and that’s fine! Just remember not to flub at the end of your answer and provide a summary of the key takeaways so that the hiring decision-makers know what they’re supposed to pick. For example, if you are asked to describe a time you led a team, you could conclude by saying, “So generally, I take a democratic approach, when it comes to leadership.”

4) Be concise: While answering competency-based questions, it is easy to get carried away with the details of your experiences, particularly if you don’t have a specific example in mind. To keep the interviewer engaged, you should provide a concise yet compelling answer. Sticking to one specific story and following the STAR format can help you be more succinct.

Got the point? When you are asked a question, think of the underlying skills. To prepare better, you can think of some real-life examples of the skills described in the job description. For expert guidance on how you could ace your upcoming job interview, you could take up our interview preparation services. We can help you master not only your answers but also negotiation and body posture. To learn more, feel free to schedule a call with us.