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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2011

What Would You Say? What Would You Do?
Paul Hettich, Ph, DePaul University (IL)

In the television program What Would You Do?, unsuspecting individuals encounter a situation created by actors where, for example, a person bullies another individual while bystanders react in different ways. Subsequently, host John Quinones steps in to explain the situation and discuss the bystanders’ reactions with assistance from an expert on the behaviors involved.

During a job interview, expect recruiters to pose behavioral or situation-based topics and request: Tell me about …, Describe a situation where …, or What you would do? Among the challenges you face during college is to articulate the attitudes, skills, and values you acquire and be able to apply them to settings that require your action. In this article, I will identify a few job interview situations and summarize an approach for responding to them. Below are eight sample situations recruiters might pose.

  1. What was the last difficult decision you made and how (i.e., identify the processes, steps and resources involved) did you arrive at that decision?
  2. Describe an example where you dealt with an angry customer or individual in a work or comparable setting.
  3. Tell me about the last time you fell short of reaching a goal individually or collectively as a team and what you would have done differently.
  4. Describe a situation where multiple priorities were pulling you in several directions simultaneously and what you did about it.
  5. Tell me about an instance where you had to deliver bad news requiring integrity or compassion to an individual or to a group.
  6. Describe a situation when you were unsuccessful at providing outstanding service to a customer, individual, or group that depended on you.
  7. Tell me about a time when you had to go well above and beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.
  8. After you answer a question (most any question) the interviewer stares at you and remains silent. What would you do?

Why are your responses important? The interviewer will be searching intently for particular attitudes, skills, and values you express or demonstrate to deal with that situation, the results you achieved, and what you learned. Your answers enable that individual to infer how you reach decisions, your level of self-awareness, your energy and conviction, and how you respond to ambiguity, conflict, and similar conditions where clear solutions are not apparent. John Jameson, Career Foundations advisor at Robert Morris University, maintains that because 75% of most jobs are "trainable,” recruiters must pay close attention to applicants’ decision processes, values, and similar characteristics that are less "trainable.” Jameson emphasizes "As a hiring manager, I must be convinced that a candidate has the unwavering commitment to uphold their values and integrity as a professional.”

You may be months away from a job search but why not try to "solve” examples like those above that have counterparts in your college experiences. Camille Helkowski, associate director of the Career Development Center at Loyola University Chicago, encourages students to use a problem solving approach known as the STAR technique.

  • Describe the Situation you were in.
  • Explain the Task you needed to accomplish.
  • Describe the Action you took.
  • Explain the Results of your action. What happened? What did you accomplish? What did you learn?

To practice STAR, let’s use the example of a group project.

Situation: You are assigned to a four-person group who must research a topic specified by your professor and provide the class with a 20 minute presentation. One member, Scott, has not attended any meetings or responded to e-mails and your presentation is due in 3 weeks.

Task: You are asked by the other two group members to find a way to get Scott involved in the project. What would you do?

Action: You contact Scott and ask to meet at a mutually convenient time to discuss the project and get his ideas. At the meeting, you ask him directly and respectfully about his level of involvement so that the group can better support his participation. Scott tells you he is absent because he works full time. After further discussion you contact the other members and plan the remaining meetings so Scott does not have a conflict. You also identify work he can do on his own to minimize the time he is required to spend in meetings.

Results: All four members were actively involved in the research and presentation; the group received an "A” grade. You communicated effectively with all individuals involved, managed the interpersonal conflicts successfully, redesigned the work flow and individual assignments, and kept the team working toward the goal of producing an excellent presentation.

Let’s make the circumstances in this example more complex and use STAR.

  1. What would you do if the other group members insist that Scott compromise and give up work to attend two group meetings at times convenient to them?
  2. What would you do if Scott is sincerely trying to contribute but his full-time job, the recent death of a parent, and a sick spouse result in his submitting inferior quality work late?
  3. What would you do if Scott’s absences from group meetings can not be settled satisfactorily and your professor refuses to get involved, explaining that resolving such problems is part of the task?

Now, describe specific values, attitudes, and skills (or absence of) demonstrated in the resolution of each circumstance by the individuals involved? (Do not search this page for solutions, because I did not provide any.) Why not apply STAR to these situations as an exercise at your next Psi Chi meeting?

What can you do to improve your chances of succeeding in a situational interview?

  1. Identify instances comparable to those above, such as relationships, important decisions, ethical dilemmas, and tense social interactions you encounter and apply STAR in an attempt to resolve them. Expect STAR to function as a useful but imperfect problem-solving tool.
  2. STAR contains components similar to other problem-solving models sometimes presented in courses such as organizational behavior, cognition, and small group communication. Review those models and determine their advantages and disadvantages for responding to behavioral interview topics.
  3. The website link to Behavioral Interviews contains a list of questions in over 50 categories of skills and characteristics written by Alex Rudloff. Check this and other websites for information about Situational Interviews and Behavioral Interviews.
  4. The first seven sample situations described earlier are often encountered in major campus organizations and clubs. Becoming an active member, better yet—a leader, can help you prepare for situational job interviews. Similarly, resident hall assistants are usually trained to deal with diverse problems and conflicts that require strong communications, conflict management, stress reduction, decision making, time management, planning and implementation, advocacy, programming, and instructional skills. For example, during college and after graduation Beth worked in various jobs, subsequently completed a PsyD degree, directed a university addictions program, and now writes and lectures on psychotherapy. When I asked Beth which undergraduate experiences were most important for developing problem-solving and interpersonal skills, she described her senior year positions as a resident hall assistant and president of the Student Governing Board. If you think about specific situations an "RA” or president of student governance confront, you will likely notice they often include the kinds of conditions posed in the first seven sample situations mentioned earlier.

To be exposed to such experiences, become involved energetically and with conviction in diverse campus activities (not just Psi Chi) by your junior year with the goal of becoming a leader. In conjunction with part-time jobs, internships, and coursework, these experiences will probably contribute significantly to achieving the competence and confidence you can display, and perhaps with ease, when an interviewer asks you: What would you do if …. ?

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Copyright 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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