Top soft skills in the workplace

Behavioral Interview Questions: How Employers Learn About Your “Soft Skills”


It’s fairly easy to talk about technical skills in a job interview – either you have a certain skill, or you don’t. You’ve done something before, or you haven’t.

But, your so-called “soft” skills – things like communication, problem-solving or leadership – are more difficult to talk about. And most employers consider soft skills to be highly important.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • the top soft skills employers are seeking, and
  • how you can present your soft skills to an employer through your answers to behavioral interview questions.

The Soft Skills Employers are Seeking

Recently, two large surveys were conducted, asking employers what attributes or skills they’re looking for in 2016. The first survey, conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, asked employers what skills they most desire in recent college graduates. The second survey was conducted by Bloomberg, and asked employers what skills they most desire in MBA talent. There were some understandable differences between the two sets of responses, but there was also a lot of overlap: employers appear to seek many of the same soft skills for entry-level jobs as they seek for higher-level jobs. The two sets of survey responses had these skills in common:

  1. Leadership
  2. Teamwork / Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Creative Problem-Solving
  5. Motivation / Drive
  6. Flexibility / Adaptability
  7. Analytical Thinking
  8. Strategic Planning

As noted above, soft skills are more difficult to “prove” in an interview, and more difficult for employers to judge.

That’s where behavioral interviewing comes in.

Behavioral Interview Questions

behavioral job interview

When it comes to soft skills, employers won’t simply ask, for example, “Are you a good problem-solver?” Instead, they will ask behavioral interview questions. Such questions are called “behavioral” because they focus on what you’ve done and how you’ve responded to things in the past. These questions usually take the form of, “Tell about a time when…” or “Give me an example of…”

By asking behavioral questions, the employer is trying to gain insight into how you function on the job. Your answer to such questions should focus not only on things you did, but also on what the outcome was. Did you achieve a successful result? Did you solve a problem?

In short, your answer will be a brief story about a situation or problem, your response to the situation, and what the result was. This is often described as the CAR approach: Context, Action and Result, and it’s a great way to present your soft skills and abilities.

So, let’s take a deeper dive into those eight soft skills listed above. We’ll look at what those skills mean to employers, and how you can use the CAR approach to prepare for behavioral interview questions related to those skills.

1. Leadership

standing out

What Is It? Leadership is not limited to being a manager or supervisor, and entails more than simply telling other people what to do. It is fundamentally about social influence, and includes such qualities as the ability to take initiative, to communicate a plan, and to motivate, develop or empower others toward a goal.

Why do Employers Want It? Employers value people who can think for themselves and make things happen. Even for entry-level positions they may seek candidates with leadership potential, who can grow into effective leaders within the company.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: Be prepared to tell the interviewer about times when you’ve demonstrated leadership. To prepare, ask yourself:

  • Have I ever taken the lead on a difficult project? How did I accomplish that? What was the result?
  • Have I led by example, or coached or mentored another person? How did the person benefit from that, and how did the company benefit?
  • Have I used facts and reason to persuade someone to take action? What were the circumstances and what was the result?
  • Have I delegated an important task to someone else? How did I track their progress? What was the outcome?

2. Teamwork / Collaboration

team working on project

What Is It? Teamwork is your ability to work collaboratively with others toward a common goal. It usually means being able to put aside your ego, to see other people’s points of view, and to value their experience and their contributions. It also means being able to communicate with, and take input from others.

Why do Employers Want It? Almost everything in business is a team effort. Yes, you have your own particular tasks and priorities, but employers want people who can see their tasks within the context of the larger shared goal.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: Be prepared to talk about times when you were part of a team, what your contribution was, how you responded to disagreements within the team, and what the team achieved. Think about:

  • A team you were part of, that achieved something of value for the business. What was your role? How did you contribute?
  • A time when team members disagreed with your ideas. What did you do? How did the other people react? What was the result?
  • A time you helped build “team spirit.” Why was it necessary and what was the outcome?

3. Communication

woman communicating

What Is It? This skill is fundamentally about your ability to clearly convey information and ideas, verbally and in writing. It also includes your ability to listen to others, and understand what they are communicating to you.

Why do Employers Want It? Similar to teamwork, communication is central to almost everything in a successful organization. It is the cornerstone of a successful team. This means being able to express a goal, a plan, a suggestion, or the ability to clearly articulate a problem or a concern. Employers also need good communication skills for anyone who deals with customers, clients or the public.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: A big part of accomplishing this will be in how you communicate with the interviewer! But, in terms of behavioral interview questions, think about:

  • A time you proposed something to a manager or supervisor. How did you go about it? Were you persuasive? What was the result?
  • A time when you successfully made a speech or presentation. How much time did you have to prepare? Did you have to “bone up” on information? How did the audience respond?
  • A time you’ve had to use written communication to convey important information. How did you approach the task? What was the outcome?
  • A time you worked to resolve a problem with a customer. How did you approach it and what was the outcome?

4. Creative Problem-Solving

solution instead of problem

What Is It? Being a problem-solver means figuring out how to get something done, especially if it’s something you’ve never done before. This includes finding a new approach to the problem if an “old” approach isn’t working.

Why do Employers Want It? As businesses increasingly run lean, employers look for people who don’t need to be managed or supervised on every single thing they do. And as companies become increasingly agile, that means they are often confronted with new problems. In both cases, employers need good problem-solvers.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: You want to be able to present yourself as a problem-solver, so be prepared to talk about such experiences as:

  • A time you were confronted with a problem, and had no manager or supervisor to ask. How did you approach the situation? What was your solution to the problem? What was the result? What did you learn from the experience?
  • A time that you went above and beyond to solve a particular problem. How did you accomplish that? What was the outcome?
  • A time when you had to analyze information in order to make a recommendation. What was your thought process? Was your recommendation accepted? What was the outcome?

5. Motivation / Drive

man in racing helmet

What Is It? In a nutshell, this means being an energetic self-starter; you don’t need to be told what to do. It also means that you are goal-oriented; you will develop a passion for whatever project you’re working on.

Why do Employers Want It? To an employer, being motivated or driven means that when you see something needing to be done, you do it. When you see a problem, you solve it. When you see an opportunity for the company, you investigate it.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: You’ll want to talk about times you went beyond what was expected, times when you did whatever was required to achieve a goal, especially in your last job. For example, think about:

  • A time you had to remain motivated while working alone on a project. What did you do to motivate yourself?
  • A time you might have envisioned and created a new project from scratch. What was the rationale for the new project? What was your plan? What was the result?
  • How you stay up-to-date with knowledge and skills that are relevant to your career.

6. Flexibility / Adaptability

woman stretching

What Is It? Flexibility is your capacity to deal with the unexpected on a day-to-day basis, your ability to respond positively to small or temporary changes. Adaptability is your capacity to accommodate larger, long-term changes.

Why do Employers Want It? Companies are running lean and agile these days; new technologies are always being adopted, and workplace diversity is increasing. Constant change is the new normal. Employers want people who can respond and adapt to what’s new or unexpected.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: To show you are flexible and adaptable, be prepared to talk about things such as:

  • A situation when you had to adjust quickly to changes over which you had no control. What was the impact of the change on you? How did you respond? What was the outcome?
  • Times when you had to adapt to new people, situations or environments.
  • A time when you had to alter your work mid-project because of some unexpected change in the organization. How did you modify your work? What was the result?
  • A time when you had to adjust your working style to that of a coworker in order to finish a project. What adjustment(s) did you make? Was it successful?

7. Analytical Thinking

flow chart

What Is It? Basically, this is your ability to digest information, find patterns, interpret them, and arrive at a conclusion.

Why do Employers Want It? Analytical thinking is the foundation of both problem-solving and adaptability. As problems become more complex, employers want people who can take a thoughtful and analytical approach. They also want people who can draw meaningful conclusions from the available information.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: You’ll want to talk about times you’ve had to use data and analytical processes. For example:

  • A time when you had to use logic or math to solve a complex problem.
  • The last time you reached a decision or solved a problem requiring careful analysis. What was the situation? How did you perform your analysis? What was the outcome?
  • A time you used information such as survey data, informational research or statistics to reach a conclusion? Again, use the CAR approach to talk about it.

8. Strategic Planning

looking ahead

What Is It? This will pertain mostly to higher level management positions. In a nutshell, strategic planning is your ability to see beyond day-to-day tasks and functions, to see long-term trends and to set long-term goals in alignment with business objectives.

Why do Employers Want It? Despite the need for agility and flexibility, companies also need to plan for the future. Employers value people who can look beyond today to anticipate what is likely to happen, and suggest ways to prepare for it. They want people who can plan and manage large, complex projects.

How to Talk About It in a Job Interview: To display your capacity to strategize and plan ahead, think about:

  • Large projects you were responsible for planning. What tools or data did you use for planning? What obstacles did you encounter? Were any of those obstacles unexpected? How did you measure success? Do you wish you’d handled anything differently? What did you learn from the experience?
  • A time when you were so busy that you had to address a problem without a plan. What was your response to the situation? What was the outcome?
  • What is your understanding/interpretation of strategic thinking or planning?
  • Be prepared to explain how you would plan and execute a large project for the employer you’re interviewing with.

Putting it All Together

job interview

Because employers are seeking the above-listed soft skills doesn’t necessarily mean those skills apply to every job. In preparing for an interview, part of your task is to know what skills and experiences will pertain to the particular job for which you’re interviewing.

Read carefully through the job description; some of the required soft skills will be specifically mentioned, while others may only be implied. You may have to read between the lines to envision what skills could come into play on the job.

Once you have a good idea of what soft skills the job will require, make a list of experiences you’ve had that display those qualities, and prepare to talk about those experiences using the CAR approach. Then, rehearse telling those stories, out loud.

Interviewers are impressed by answers to behavioral interview questions that show how your skills have benefited past employers, and are therefore likely to benefit them!

Workshops to Help You Prepare for Job Interviews

Eligible job seekers can take advantage of some great workshops to help with behavioral interviewing, resumes, and much more! Learn about Workshops at workNet DuPage »