Sometimes, more abstract, behavioral questions aren’t enough to get a solid feel for whether an interviewee is right for a role. That’s why several companies incorporate experience-rooted, competency-based interview questions into their interview processes — allowing potential employees to back up their personal claims with professional proof.
As a job-seeker, you’re almost bound to face competency-based questions at some point. To help you get a picture of how to approach these situations, we’ll go over what competency-based interview questions are and see some sample questions and answers.
Let’s dive in.
What are competency-based interview questions?
Competency-based interview questions are interview questions that require interviewees to point to professional experiences to demonstrate they have certain competencies — the skills, qualities, knowledge, and abilities required to carry out role-specific responsibilities and contribute to a productive workplace.
Competency-based interview questions help employers get a more practical sense of what you can do for their organizations. They give interviewees a chance to tout their accomplishments and speak about their relevant experience.
The competencies covered by these questions typically include elements like:
- Effective communication
- Ability to contribute to a team
The best way to answer competency-based interview questions is to leverage the S.T.A.R — or situation, task, action, result — method. Here’s what those elements look like, broken down:
- Situation — Describe the problem you addressed and the circumstances surrounding it. Give context, and touch on why what you did had to be done.
- Task — Explain how you played into the situation. Elaborate on what was expected of you and why you were the one to do it.
- Action — Detail the specific steps you took to make good on the task you just described.
- Result — Speak to the outcome of your actions. If possible, support this portion of your answer with specifics and hard numbers.
Now that we have a feel for what these questions are and how to answer them, let’s see some examples of what they might look like in practice.
Competency-Based Interview Questions and Answers
1. Tell me about a time you helped a manager solve a problem.
Potential employers will ask a question like this to get a read on whether you’ve had constructive relationships with previous managers. It’s a way for you to demonstrate that you can proactively contribute to a managerial dynamic without overstepping.
If possible, see if you can find an instance where you identified a problem and brought it to your manager’s attention — adding an element of creativity and perceptiveness to your answer. If you can’t think of that kind of example, you can go with a time when a manager brought a problem to you.
“When I was working as an SDR, I noticed that prospects were consistently raising a pain point that we weren’t trained to address and didn’t cover in our call script. Considering how prevalent it was, I felt like it couldn’t be looked over.
I brought it up with my manager and asked her to review the transcripts from our conversation intelligence platform and pay careful attention to the issue. She noticed it too, and I proposed some amendments to how we discuss that aspect of our product. She was receptive to my suggestions, and I helped her coordinate a training to cover those bases.”
2. Tell me about a time you made a difficult decision at work.
As you can assume, interviewers are asking a question about difficult decisions to get a pulse on your decision-making skills. They want to know that you can confront tough calls with composure, decisiveness, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to learn — regardless of what the result might be.
“When I was managing a team of key account managers, I noticed that our churn rate was disproportionately high and our team turnover wasn’t sustainable. After looking into the situation, I determined that our key account criteria weren’t rigorous enough — we were putting way too much work on our employees’ plates and flooding them with low-quality accounts.
I made the call to go to leadership and presented a new, stricter, more detailed criteria for what should constitute a key account. After some back and forth, we agreed on a new system that was mostly in keeping with what I described.
Long term, we were ultimately able to retain more key accounts, minimized employee burnout, and haven’t lost a single manager since implementing the new criteria. It was nerve-racking to bring the suggestion up the chain, but it wound up being one of the better decisions I made in my career.”
3. Tell me about a time you had to work under pressure.
Questions about how you work under pressure are used to gauge your composure, ability to act independently, and threshold for stressful circumstances.
Be honest about how you arrived at the situation you discuss. Make sure the experience is significant, and be able to speak to anything you learned from working through it.
“I was working on a deal to sell a curriculum scheduling software to a community college. We had buy-in from all but one stakeholder, and the deal wasn’t going to come together without their approval.
Time was of the essence, and the pressure was real — as the school was considering going with one of our competitors. I reached out and was able to schedule a presentation with the administrative team at the school, including the stakeholder who was holding us back.
That week, I decided to try another angle. I thoroughly researched how the institution compared to other community colleges in the area, considering factors like degree velocity, enrollment, and faculty turnover.
When I presented, I was able to speak to how our solution offered more than convenience — it also posed a competitive advantage. The team from the school was receptive to the revised pitch, and we were able to close.”
4. Tell me about a time you’ve helped a new colleague find their bearings in the workplace.
Questions like this one are designed to let you demonstrate empathy, agreeableness, and leadership potential. An effective answer here shows that you have the compassion and people skills to do more than simply be a cog in a broader organizational machine. It shows that you’ll elevate those around you — employers will always put a lot of stake in interviewees who can contribute like that.
“When I was working as an AE, I enrolled in my sales org’s mentorship program. My manager made a point of putting me with an SDR who was having a particularly hard time finding his bearings and seemed demoralized.
I started by scheduling weekly one-on-ones with him and got approval from his manager to look over his call transcripts. I found that he was letting prospects dominate his conversations and giving up too early. We started doing mock calls together, and I gave him pointers to help him get the hang of directing a conversation and develop confidence.
After about a month and a half as my mentee, he was able to double his call conversion rate. He’s one of the company’s top-performing, most active SDRs now and has really folded into the fabric of the company culture. It was easily one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.”
5. What is a lesson you learned in your professional life that you’ve applied in your work?
This one is a bit more abstract than most other competency-based questions, but you should always be prepared to answer something in this vein. Some competency-based questions are rooted in bigger-picture thinking.
If you’re asked this kind of question, see if you can cite how you learned the lesson, and be self-aware and self-reflective. You want to be able to speak to times you came up short and how you worked proactively to ensure you didn’t make the same mistake twice.
“One key lesson I’ve learned in my career is that sometimes you’re the ‘actor,’ and sometimes you’re ‘the director.’ That means sometimes, you’re expected to be creative and lead the charge — and other times, your only responsibility is the specific one assigned to you.
When I was first starting as a content writer, I had a manager pass along a guest post that she needed proofread for grammatical errors. When I read the piece, I thought I could radically improve it from an editorial perspective. I wound up taking a lot of time to revise the piece and sent it back to her.
Once she looked it over, she came to my desk and told me, ‘This isn’t what I asked you to do.’ In that instance, I was supposed to be the actor — to read my lines and do what I was told — but I tried to be the director and do too much.
It was a valuable lesson in working with management. Since then, I’ve made sure to discern between the two situations, dutifully fulfilling my ‘actor’ responsibilities and going above and beyond for my ‘director’ opportunities.”
6. Tell me about a career goal you’ve set and how you’re working to achieve it.
Interviewers will ask a question like this to see whether you’re forward-thinking, goal-oriented, and motivated. They also might ask it to see if your ambitions align with the role in question’s career trajectory.
When answering this kind of question, try to make your goals concrete and practical. Saying something like, “I want to be the best salesperson I can be,” is a bit too fluffy. They’re trying to see that you can set goals that are both reasonable and ambitious — answering with some specificity helps convey that.
“Since the start of my career, I’ve wanted to get into people management. At some point, I’d like to manage a team of newer reps. I enjoy coaching and love knowing when I played a role in someone’s professional growth.
I’ve made a point of trying to develop the right skills to ultimately lead a team, down the line. I have enrolled in my current company’s annual mentorship program for the last two years, and I’ve taken online courses on offering feedback and other key elements of people management.”
Answering competency-based interview questions can be a tricky process to navigate, but if you can nail it, you have the opportunity to show and tell — talking up your qualifications and substantiating those claims with hard, professional proof.
Originally published May 31, 2022 7:00:00 AM, updated May 31 2022