The STAR Interview Technique
BOND, the UK network for organisations working in international development, published its most recent survey of non-governmental organisation’s (NGO’s) financial situations on October 7, 2020. On current financial projections, the survey found that only 52% of organisations can see themselves operating beyond the next 24 months. 24% of organisations expect to close within the next 12 months unless the funding picture drastically changes.
Small and medium-sized organisations are most at risk. Only 29% of small NGOs expect to be operating in two years.
In this context and given the dominance of people costs in this sector, it is not at all surprising that international NGOs are looking to enhance the effectiveness of their staff selection methods. One change, reflecting this trend, is the now widespread adoption of behavioural interviewing.
Why behavioural interviewing?
Behavioural interviewing (or competency-based interviewing) is becoming an increasingly popular approach to candidate assessment. This growing popularity is founded on the premise that what individuals did in the past is likely to be a good predictor of future performance. Perhaps that’s not a bad assumption – though it does rather overlook the impact of different contexts, varied team contributions and, sadly, the possibility that we learn and develop through what we do!
The search for evidence
The behavioural (or competency based) questioning technique is, however, much better than asking hypothetical questions (E.g., “How will you handle…,”). The behavioural interviewer will ask more specific and focused questions (E.g., “Describe a time when you had to…”) inviting the candidate to provide concrete examples of desired behaviours from the past. For example, instead of asking an interviewee, “How will you deal with a team member who is not pulling his weight on a project?” an interviewer using the behavioural technique may ask, “Describe a project where one of your teammates was not pulling his or her weight. What did you do?”
The association with key competences or behaviours in action
To select the most appropriate questions to use, an interviewer will have identified the behaviours associated with success in the job being recruited to. He/she then decides on a series of questions which typically begin:
- “Describe a time when you had to …. What did you do?”
- “Give me an example of a time when you had to …”
- “Tell me about a situation in the past …”
The interviewer’s expectations
Through asking this initial behavioural question the interviewer generally expects the candidate to talk about four aspects of their experience: (1) what the Situation was, (2) what their Task was, (3) what Action they took, and (4) the Result. These four aspects give rise to the most common name for the method: the “STAR approach”. Each letter of the STAR mnemonic is associated with one of the four parts of an ideal candidate answer: “S” for their explanation of their “situation”; “T” for the “task” they undertook; “A” for the “actions” they took, alone or with others and “R” for the “result” (or the outcomes) achieved.
Pause to reflect
In my career coaching, I find that clients frequently rush to begin answering the question and I frequently have to counsel them to pause and consider some questions of their own. Let me explain in more detail …
- Listen to the question carefully. Frequently, behavioural interview questions tend to be rather long-winded. This is because they typically begin with a statement that summarises the interviewer’s expectations. Here is an example: “Good problem-solving often includes a careful review of the facts and weighing of options before making a decision. Tell me about a time when you reached a practical business decision by assessing the facts and weighing up the options.”
The initial statement, before the question itself, provides the candidate who is listening carefully with a window into the interviewer’s expectations about the most desirable type of answer. In our example, the interviewer has told the candidate what they believe to be the valued characteristics of good problem-solving. There would be little point answering this interviewer’s question with an example that did not demonstrate ‘careful review of the facts and weighing of the options’.
That is not to say, of course, that your answer shouldn’t refer to the need for a swift and timely decision or demonstrate other ways in which you added value!
- Make sure you understand the question before you start to answer. It is not unusual, given the length of a typical behavioural interview question, for a candidate to want to demonstrate that they have heard and understood correctly or to want to clarify the question. An acceptable initial response in this situation is to paraphrase the question and ask the interviewer if you have understood correctly. If necessary, ask the interviewer to repeat the question. It’s wise to use this technique sparingly, however. If you ask the interviewer to repeat every question, they may simply doubt your ability to listen.
When hearing the question, the candidate will need to be engaged in some ‘deep listening’.
For example, let’s examine this well-known leadership question: “Have you ever had to define yourself amid criticism, and did you succeed?” Whilst we can’t be certain of the interviewer’s intentions, this question provides the candidate with an opportunity to talk about their demonstrated ability to listen to feedback, to adapt as a manager, to lead teams well and to persuade others … alongside other obvious leadership capabilities.
- Organise your answer. Allow yourself five to eight seconds to collect your thoughts and structure your response. In this time, you should initially examine the question to decide what specific skill the question is addressing. Then choose your most applicable experience to relate. Finally, decide how to structure your answer using the four steps of the “STAR” technique. Sticking to this STAR model is important especially if you naturally tend to be quite an extravert, given to structuring your views as you speak rather than beforehand!
- Answer the question. Try to limit your answer to about three minutes. This is long enough to relate a story completely and short enough to hold the interviewer’s attention. Try to avoid using stories that all come from one period of your work experience. Also, if at all possible, try to avoid selecting stories from work roles held years ago.
- Stick to your STAR. Resist the temptation to think of new details as you provide your answer. By sticking with your planned details and structure, you can provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.
Answering a question: Using the STAR technique to narrate an experience
Every answer should address the capability in question. The response should be based on an experience from a previous job assignment, project, academic study, or community work. As the interview progresses the candidate should aim to present a diverse range of experiences and each answer given should follow the STAR. Use the four STAR steps:
- “S” for Situation: Preface your answer with just enough background or contextual information to set off your experience. Think of a photograph where the foreground is well lit against a contrasting background such that every detail is in high relief.
- “T” for Task: Describe the task that needed to be done. Throughout the interview select some examples where you decided on the task as well as situations where someone else set the task. At this point in the story explain the expected outcome and any conditions you needed to satisfy.
- “A” for Action: State the action you took in response to the challenge. Use ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements with great care here. Describe your contribution to analytical work, team effort or project coordination.
- “R” for Results: Explain the results of your efforts: what you accomplished, over what period, what you learned, how your manager(s) and the team responded, and how your organisation recognised you. Wherever possible, quantify your (or your team’s) achievements and improvements.
After the initial question and answer, the interviewer may question the interviewee further.
These supplementary questions may be phrased like any of these examples:
- “What was the outcome?”
- “Did you consider …?”
- “How did the other person react?”
- “What did you learn from this whole episode?”
Much advice given about candidate preparation for a behavioural interview tends to focus on the initial question. Whilst this is helpful, it is the – typically more focused – supplementary question that packs most of the investigative power. So, as you prepare for your interview, consider what supplementaries might be asked and prepare for these also.