How to ace behavioral interviews at Amazon, Microsoft, Google, etc.

Behavioral questions are common in interviews at tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc. For instance, your interviewer might ask, "When was the last time you overcame a really difficult challenge?"

These questions aren't particularly hard compared to some of the others you’ll face during the interview and are sometimes overlooked by candidates. It's therefore worth spending time to prepare answers for them and to build an edge against other applicants. We’ve written this article to help you do just that.

Here’s an overview of what we will cover:


1. What’s a behavioral interview?

Employers such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google use behavioral interviews to assess job candidates based on their past behavior. Behavioral interview questions often start, “Tell me about a time you…” and they tend to focus on soft skills such as: leadership, communication, teamwork, problem solving, etc.

For example, instead of asking hypothetical questions like, “How would you lead your team if we hire you?” they would ask situational questions such as, “Tell me about a time you lead a team through a difficult situation?”

The good news is that these questions can be relatively straightforward to answer if you know how to approach them. In the next section, we’ll step through two techniques you can use to answer behavioral interview questions.

2. Techniques: how to answer behavioral interview questions

When answering behavioral questions, you should focus on your most relevant achievements and communicate them in a clear way. An easy way to achieve this is to use a step-by-step method to tell your stories. We’ll review two methods you can use.

2.1 STAR method

The STAR method is a really popular approach for answering behavioral questions because it’s easy to remember:

  1. Situation: Start by outlining the situation you were in, and provide necessary context (Your role, the team, the organization, the market, etc.).
  2. Task: Next, describe the problem that needed a solution. Also, explain your responsibility and what you decided to do about it.
  3. Action: Then step through how you went about implementing your solution, and focus on your contribution.
  4. Result: Finally, summarize with an analysis of your actions, highlighting the positive impact it had for your team, department, and organization, and emphasize what you learned.

The STAR method is an effective technique, however, we’ve found that candidates can find it difficult to distinguish the difference between the Task and Action steps. Some also forget to include lessons learned in the results step, which is especially crucial when discussing past failures. These issues can lead to stumbles during the interview, which are very difficult to recover from.

2.2 IGotAnOffer method

We’ve developed the IGotAnOffer method to correct some of the pitfalls we’ve observed when using the STAR method. Let’s step through our suggested five-step approach:

  1. Situation: Start by giving the necessary context of the situation you were in. Describe your role, the team, the organization, the market, etc. You should only give the minimum context needed to understand the problem and the solution in your story. Nothing more.
  2. Problem: Outline the problem you and your team were facing.
  3. Solution: Explain the solution you came up with to solve the problem. Step through how you went about implementing your solution, and focus on your contribution over what the team / larger organization did.
  4. Impact: Summarize the positive results you achieved for your team, department, and organization. As much as possible, quantify the impact.
  5. Lessons: Conclude with any lessons you might have learned in the process.

You’ll notice that this method covers very similar themes to the STAR method. But a lot of the candidates we work with find this framework easier to use as there’s no overlap between any of the steps in your story.

You should use and practice whatever method you’re most comfortable with. But when you do so, make sure you follow the tips and avoid the mistakes we have listed below.

3. Tips: how to impress your interviewer

Here are a few tips and some common mistakes to keep in mind when answering behavioral questions in interviews.

Tip #1: Write down your stories in advance

Acing a behavioral question is much harder than it looks. A lot of candidates are completely unprepared. You’ll definitely stand out if you put in the required work. Pick one of the methods above and prepare a story for each of the questions we have listed at the bottom of this article.

Tip #2: Practice your stories out loud

Having a good story to tell is only half the battle. The way you deliver that story is also extremely important. Practicing by yourself or with peers will help you memorize your answers and be confident on the day you interview.

Tip #3: Get used to setting up the situation in 30 seconds or less

Use a timer while you practice to ensure you provide only necessary information. Spending too much time on the Situation step is one of the most common mistakes candidates make.

Tip #4: Stay focused on essential details

Interviewers hear a lot of behavioral stories a day. If you go into unnecessary details you are likely to lose their attention. Share your stories with a few different people before your interview and ask them what details they would suggest cutting.

Tip #5: Be proud and talk about YOU

This is not the time to be shy about your accomplishments. Concentrate on your impact, not what “the team” did. Not talking about YOU enough is another common mistake we see with a lot of candidates.

Tip #6: Adapt to follow up questions

Don’t be alarmed if your interviewer asks follow up questions; this is perfectly normal. Listen carefully to the way your interviewer is asking these questions, as there will often be a subtle clue about the specific skills they’re looking to assess from the next part of your answer.

Tip #7: Explain how failure made you better

When talking about failure, don’t try to hide your mistakes or frame a weakness as a strength. Instead, show what you learned and how you grew from the failure.

4. Example: Tell me about a time you had an innovative idea that had a positive impact

Now that you know some approaches for answering behavioral questions, let's look at a full example.

Try answering the question below following your preferred method. Play both the role of the interviewer and candidate. Leave a comment at the bottom of the blog post with your answer. We will reply to every question in the comments section.

The key is to answer the question without seeing other people’s answers. To do so, scroll down directly to the bottom and leave your answer before reading other candidates’ proposals.

Try this question:
Tell me about a time you had an innovative idea that had a positive impact
Answer:

We’ll use the IGotAnOffer method described above and answer as if interviewing for a Product Manager job at a tech company.

You will find our proposed answer to the question below. Before taking a look at it, make sure you go to the bottom of the page and answer the question by yourself in the comments section. There are only so many opportunities to prepare for behavioral interview questions!

1. Situation

Note that this question isn’t necessarily about a past product manager role and allows you to describe a variety of situations. Let’s use an example from working at a coffee shop.

Start by outlining the situation. You only want to give the minimum context needed to understand the problem and the solution.

You could start by saying something like, “When I was in college I was a barista at a 30-year-old, local coffee shop called Sunny’s. It was a small business with less than ten employees, resistant to change, and located in a neighborhood with new shops and restaurants opening at a rapid pace. It was also starting to lose regular customers and revenue.”

This gives a quick sense of the setting for the problem and solution you’re about to describe without going into too much detail.

2. Problem

Once you outline the situation, you can explain the problem by saying something like, “We didn’t know why the shop was losing customers, and the owner was trying all kinds of different promotions that weren’t working.”

You have spent very few words between describing the situation and problem, but your answer so far has given the interviewer a clear sense of the setting and challenge you faced.

3. Solution

When describing the solution you came up with to solve the problem, it’s important to step through your thinking. And as mentioned in the tips section, it’s especially important to focus on YOUR contribution.

You could say something such as, “I was only a barista and had no stake in the business, but wanted the shop to succeed given its history in the neighborhood. So I decided to find an easy way to understand the market and find some of the root-causes of the problem we were experiencing. My first step was to informally survey customers about their coffee habits as they paid for their order. This gave me insight into what other shops were popular and what people liked about them. Next, I stopped by some of the other shops on my way to work, looking for what they might be doing differently.

“I noticed a few common themes at these other popular shops: 1) They offered soy and almond as alternatives to dairy milk, 2) they emphasized fair trade coffee, and 3) they printed the WiFi password on receipts.

“I mentioned these themes to the owner and helped to prioritize easy, low-cost solutions. First, buying a few cartons of soy and almond milk allowed us to test if this made a difference to Sunny’s customers without requiring a big investment. Second, all of the coffee that Sunny’s sold was already fair trade, but this wasn’t advertised; so I helped make a few signs to explain and placed them around the store. Third, we realized that printing the password on receipts was too cumbersome of a change, so instead I trained all baristas to ask customers if they wanted the WiFi password after they paid for their order.”

Let’s take a step back and look at all of the different behavioral and product skills you’ve highlighted with this answer. It emphasizes your leadership drive, as you were trying to solve a problem even when it wasn’t your direct responsibility. It shows your creativity, as you found low-cost and innovative ways to solve the problem despite the limited resources of the company. Your answer also shows your communication ability as you prioritize solutions with an apprehensive owner and trained other colleagues on new processes.

4. Impact

After explaining the actions you took it’s a good idea to quantify how much impact you had.

You could say something like, “So what I did wasn’t all that complex. I asked customers about their preferences, conducted some basic competitive analysis, helped to establish low-risk innovations by brainstorming solutions with the owner, and trained staff on the changes. After these changes, sales returned to normal within a couple months. Seeing this, the owner started more regularly surveying customers and executing competitive analysis, which has helped to make Sunny’s one of the top coffee shops in the neighborhood to this day.”

5. Lessons

Finally, wrap up your answer by describing any lessons you might have learned.

You could say, “This all happened before my professional career really started, but it taught me that the most innovative solutions are not always radical or expensive. It’s also a great reminder that understanding customer needs is crucial when trying to innovate in any business.”

How did you do? 

Leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, and we will answer them promptly.

5. Practice questions

If you would like feedback on your answer to any of the questions listed here, you can leave your answer below and our team will get back to you.

5.1 Common behavioral questions

Here are the top ten common behavioral questions that were asked in PM interviews at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and LinkedIn, according to data from Glassdoor.com.

  • Tell me about your most significant accomplishment. Why was it significant?
  • Describe a project that you wish you had done better and how you would do it differently today
  • Tell me about a time you lead a team
  • When was the last time you failed at work?
  • Tell me about a time when you faced conflict within a team, and how you dealt with it
  • Describe a time you disagreed with your manager
  • Tell me about a time you overcame a really difficult challenge
  • Tell me a piece of difficult feedback you received and how you handled it
  • How do you get people to agree with your point of view?
  • Tell me about your most successful project
5.2 Behavioral questions for product managers

When interviewing for a PM role, you can expect behavioral questions to also touch on core PM skills like strategy, prioritization, marketing, analysis, etc. Here are the top ten behavioral product knowledge questions that were asked in PM interviews at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and LinkedIn, according to data from Glassdoor.com.

  • Tell me about a product you lead from idea to launch
  • Tell me about a time you applied judgment to a decision when data was not available
  • Describe the last time you had to make a challenging decision when prioritizing
  • Tell me about a time you broke a complex problem into simple sub-parts
  • Describe a project you’re proud of and explain your process for ensuring high standards were met in delivery
  • Tell me about your greatest achievement as a product manager
  • Tell me about a time you had to make a decision with incomplete information
  • Describe a time you proposed a radical solution to a problem and how you identified that it required a different way of thinking
  • Give a specific example where you drove adoption for your vision. How did you know it had been adopted by others?
  • Explain the last time you figured out what your customers really wanted

If you are practicing for PM interviews, here are some other question types you should prepare for:


Any questions about behavioral interviews?

If you have any questions about behavioral interviews, do not hesitate to ask them below and we will be more than happy to answer them. All questions are good questions, so go ahead!

Keep reading: product manager interview articles