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How to tackle tricky competency questions

Interviewers are relying more and more on competency questions to help them differentiate between competing candidates. But what are they exactly – and what’s the best way to approach them?

A lot of the information you provide on your CV is basically a series of facts. Your education, your qualifications, your previous employers – information like this is vital to help employers sift through often sizeable pools of candidates to shortlist the most suitable.

At interview stage, however, facts aren’t enough. Competency questions – such as ‘Tell me about a time when you showed leadership?’ – tell an interviewer about how, in your real working life, you have put your skills and experience to good use in specific situations. Your answer gives you a chance to go beyond the facts and tell a powerful story.

Competency questions are a useful way for employers to distinguish if you’re a good fit for their organisation, and to differentiate between different candidates with similar levels of skill and experience. That’s because no two stories – and no two storytellers – are the same.

Stories are a powerful communication tool because they appeal to both the emotional and rational sides of the brain. They’re a chance for you to show more of your personality and establish a warmer connection with your interviewer that goes beyond the data of your CV. You can also use them to demonstrate more of what you’re capable of, and to steer the interview in the direction that best showcases your suitability for the role.

What key areas (competencies) do interviewers ask about?

There’s a wide range of topics that you might be asked a competency question about, but they tend to fall into a few predictable categories. For example personal qualities, interpersonal skills and team behaviour, leadership and management, commercial and client skills, as well as problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Here are some typical competency questions you might be asked: 

  • ‘Tell us about a time when you had to deal with challenging feedback on your work’ 
  • ‘Tell me about a time when you were able to resolve a conflict within your team’
  • ‘Tell me about a time when you were able to help a team member who was struggling with morale issues’
  • ‘Describe a situation where you were able to directly influence your company’s bottom line’
  • ‘Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult strategic decision and win over others in the process?’

You can often infer the sort of questions that you might be asked at a specific interview from what you know of the role, the job description, and of course your own CV. If you’re working with a recruitment consultant, make sure you ask for their advice too. Good ones will have met the client and know exactly what competencies the employer is looking for.

If, for example, you are interviewing for a role where you’ll be managing people for the first time, you can expect a question like: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to step in and show leadership in your team’. This gives you a chance to show that, even if you haven’t formally had to demonstrate a particular competency before, you already have the potential to do so.

If you are moving into a role where the ability to cope with significant time pressure is critical, you might be asked: ‘Tell us about a time where you had to juggle lots of conflicting deadlines’. If close team-working or client-facing skills are essential, you might be asked, ‘Tell us about a situation where you had to find a way to work with a colleague who you didn’t always get on with’, or ‘Tell me about a time when you went the extra mile to delight a customer’.

How to answer a competency question

Think of your answer to a competency question as a very focused kind of story. Any good story has a character we care about – that’s you. The character is set a challenge or finds themselves in a tricky situation. Then they have to go on a journey and take some actions to find the answer, and usually gain a valuable life lesson in the process. For your big finish, focus on the positive outcome that you helped to achieve, and briefly say what you learned in the process.

To make your story more credible and relatable, add in a few specific details and anecdotal touches (but stay on point – don’t waffle). And don’t be afraid to show yourself in a less-than-perfect light at some points too: as in any good Hollywood film, things tend to go worse for our hero before they get better, and seeing how you overcome these challenges – whether internal or external – adds to the power of the story.

Be a STAR storyteller

Another good way to remember how to structure your answer to a competency question is to follow the STAR system:

  • SITUATION: Explain the context, your role, the potential challenge you and the organisation were facing. 
  • TASK: What specific task were you given responsibility for, to help your company meet the challenge? 
  • ACTION: What steps did you decide to take, and why? How were your actions received by stakeholders and co-workers? 
  • RESULT: What was the outcome of your actions? What difference did you make? What did you learn?

Example answer:

Q: ‘Tell us about a time when you had to ‘manage up’
A: ‘When I first started my current role, I quickly discovered that we had a recurring difficulty in getting new client reports signed off in a timely fashion. I asked around the team, and found out that every asset had to be personally approved by a particular director. This man was perceived to be quite intimidating and was never very available, so we were constantly on the backfoot with deadlines.

‘Working with colleagues, I did an audit of our existing approval processes, and identified all the potential risks and bottlenecks. It seemed to me that only certain reports really needed such a senior level of sign-off, and empowering other managers to own approvals would help ease the pressure on the system. My line manager was so impressed she asked me to present my ideas to the senior team.

‘I was quite nervous to find myself presenting to the director himself, but as part of my proposal, I put the case that possible late delivery of reports to clients was a significant business risk. When I concluded with my new proposed approach, the executive – who wasn’t intimidating at all! – congratulated me on my efforts and said he’d been looking for a way to delegate some of his responsibilities for a long time.

‘As a result, a modified version of my process was introduced almost immediately, and several team members have commented since on how the production process is now much more efficient and less pressured. I learnt from this experience that if you want to make positive change, it’s important to look beyond individual personalities and build instead a compelling case that everyone can get behind. And if you want to point out a problem, people will listen to you much more if you’ve got an idea for the solution too!’

It’s a good idea to think of a few competency scenarios that might come up ahead of an interview, and practise talking them through with a friend or partner – or even just in the mirror!


More interview advice 

Download our free interview guide.

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