Learn to like scenarios ...

"I went to an interview last week prepared to face a barrage of competency questions which looked back at events from my work experience. Instead, I didn't get any. None. I got loads of questions like, "What would you do if …". I was completely thrown. What was going off?"

Drazen can be forgiven for getting needlessly caught out in the stress of an interview situation as I've known that type of question blind-side many people.

The solution is so easy and obvious that Drazen was left holding his face in his hands and shaking his head sadly at his missed opportunity.

"What would you do if …" questions are scenario questions, which are almost identical in concept to competency questions, but can be a step towards strengths-based interviewing. To summarise:

  • Competency-based questions look backwards. They're characterised by questions that start with, "Tell me about a time when …" or "Describe a situation where you … ".
  • Scenario questions instead look forwards and are characterised by questions starting with, "What would you do in a situation where … ", "How would you handle a problem such as … ", and so on.
  • Strengths-based questions try to find what you do best and what you feel enthusiastic about. They're trying to uncover your innate strengths to see whether those match the predicted requirements of those needed in the job.

How to handle scenario questions …

Scenario questions are great for interviewers because they cause you to draw on previous experience, but project yourself into a fictitious, but plausibly realistic, situation that you might face in your new role.

As a consequence, they can additionally expose details about your character, values and belief systems. It’s not uncommon for normally-hidden prejudices to accidently lurch into the light of day, so pay close attention to your answers.

Your saviour with all three question types above is the STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result). Drazen failed to twig that, in the heat and stress of the moment. The STAR technique helps you to get your head quickly around constructing comprehensive answers.

Remember that being ‘comprehensive’ does not entitle you to deliver an endless, rambling, unfocused diatribe, in the vain hope that you’ll eventually answer the question, in the same way as shot from a blunderbuss might hit a target. Keep your answers simple, on topic and as short as you can make them, whilst still covering the STAR ground.

Scenario practise questions …

Below are some scenario questions to practise with. You can look at most of them and construct a backwards-looking competency-based question out of them, if you want to see how these two question types mirror each other very well.

  1. You see a potential problem for your department that you’re very concerned about. You put it to your boss but he doesn’t see it and tells you to stop wasting time and carry on with your other work. How do you handle that situation? (The competency-based question might be: Tell me about a time when you recognised a potential problem but had difficulty getting the attention of people onto it.)
  2. There are four of you working together on a critical project and your boss is suddenly rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis. She has a major project meeting in one hour that can’t be missed or the project will be delayed. Your peers are reluctant to get involved because it will be a heavy-duty meeting. What do you do in that situation? (The competency-based question might be: Have you ever had a situation where you had to, perhaps unwillingly, step into the breach?)
  3. You and a colleague are working together on a project but your colleague is quite often lazy and sloppy. They are more experienced than you but they take credit for some of your work and lay blame for problems off onto you. You catch some of their errors that could have had serious safety consequences later. What do you do?
  4. You’ve been promoted to supervisor of a small department with three employees reporting to you, previously your peers. You’re told that you have to make one of them redundant. How do you handle that?
  5. You’ve been helping your boss by covering up his drinking problem but it has suddenly got much worse. How do you handle that situation?
  6. A week ago you arranged to give a presentation to a group of people from some other departments about your findings from an important project you’ve been assigned. On that occasion no one turned up and the meeting was re-scheduled for today. Your boss will also be attending. What will you do in advance of the meeting?
  7. You’ve been working hard on a project, a deadline is coming up but you doubt that you’ll finish in time. What do you do?
  8. You’re a team leader and are running a meeting in which you invite votes for and against an issue. You usually prefer to lead by building a consensus but the vote is tied. What do you do?
  9. It seems clear to you that your boss actually dislikes you. What are you going to do?
  10. For the third time, one of your co-workers is chosen for promotion over you. What do you do about that?

Structuring your answers to scenario questions …

A common theme to a lot of these questions is that of a need to proactively take responsibility in some way. Your answers need to show that you’re someone with balls, as it’s hard to imagine a situation where an employer might prefer a wallflower over an oak tree.

Having said that, if you have fascist tendencies, a world domination complex and a completely unfettered competitive streak, allowing all of these traits to strongly colour your answers may not present you as a balanced team player, in it for the long haul.

Focus on delivering answers which support the values of the organisation (or alleged values :) ) and which support the objectives of the role you’re applying for. To prepare for interviews, I would suggest:

  • evaluating the selection criteria for the role;
  • identifying the competencies that the employer might require;
  • and then constructing your own scenario-type questions against which to test yourself.

Personally, I prefer facing scenario questions over competency-based questions as the interviewer is saving you the hassle of dredging your brain for suitable examples to talk about.

Having said that, it does throw more emphasis on the need to prepare well, though.

Good luck!

Key words: Scenario interviews, competency-based interviews, strengths-based interviews, STAR technique, interview preparation

Related articles: Scenario interviews, competency-based interviews, strengths-based interviews, STAR technique, interview preparation