Conquering Competency Based Interview Questions

I recently responded to a reader asking for help with preparing for competency-based job interview questions. Here's what I told her:

Commonly questioned competencies include adaptability/flexibility, collaboration/teamwork, communication, delegation, conflict management, customer focus, decision-making, and management/leadership.

Most competency-based interview questions are along the lines of "Tell us about a time when you..." They want to hear detailed examples of how you used particular competencies to deal with specific situations. For example, for the adaptability competency, the question might be "Tell us about a time when you had to change plans for a project already underway." If they wanted to tack on a question about the communication competency, they might ask, "How did you explain the need for those changes to others?"

You can anticipate the type of questions likely to be asked by reading the position descriptions and looking for the competencies they mention. Also, a helpful website offering several example competency-based questions is here:

With these kinds of questions it's difficult to provide you with sample answers, because your answers must be specific to your own experiences.

The key is to be prepared to talk about specific situations in which you actually used the particular competencies in successful or effective ways.

When responding to the questions, you want to:

  1. Describe the situation you were faced with or the task you had to accomplish. Whenever possible, talk about specific situations rather than generic overviews of what you have done in the past. Give details.
  2. Describe the challenges you needed to overcome. The bigger the challenges, the more impressive your story will be. (But don't exaggerate; stick to the facts.)
  3. Describe the action you took to overcome the challenges and resolve the situation. If you are discussing a group project, it's okay to mention that it was a team effort and share the credit, BUT be sure to focus primarily on the actions YOU took, rather than the actions of the team.
  4. Describe the results you achieved; e.g., money saved, process improved, customer pleased, etc. Be specific.

You can think of this question-answering process in terms of the acronym SCARfor Situation, Challenges, Action, Results. It's a very effective way to answer competency-based (and other types of) job interview questions.

While it's best to talk about actual situations, if they ask about something you have no specific experience with, admit that and follow up with how you WOULD handle it. Say for example they asked, "Tell us about a time when you disagreed with your boss about how to accomplish a task, and how you convinced him or her to let you do it your way." This could be related to the decision-making competency. You could say "I've never been in a situation where I disagreed with my boss and felt it was necessary to convince him to do something differently, but if happened, I would explain the reasons why.

For instance, I would discuss the possible consequences of doing it his way, then explain how my way would avoid those consequences or improve the outcome. I would compare all of the pros and cons of the two methods, persuade him that my approach would be better for the company, and seek his buy-in and approval to proceed."

IMPORTANT: Be prepared for follow-up questions to your answers... they may want more details.

POWERFUL TIP: Think of a few different situations you've been through that were particularly challenging and where your actions led to important successes. Jot down all of the specifics of what happened (remember SCAR). Make a list of the competencies that could be related to those situations. You'll then have powerful answers to a variety of competency-based questions. Practice those answers. At the interview, listen for questions for which those answers will apply. Then impress the hiring manager and get the job!

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Additional Job Interview Q&A; Info

For even more information about job interview questions and how to answer them, consider the "Job Interview Success System."

One of the 5 key components of this system is a 31-page report entitled "How to Give Job-Winning Answers to Interview Questions." In addition to giving more tips and strategies on general answering techniques, it lists 45 of the easiest, toughest, silliest and most common job interview questions as well as how to respond to them.

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