What West Wing Can Teach Us About Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

The purpose of behavioral questions is not to tell specific stories about your past. It is to use stories to signal to interviewers how you are going to behave in the future. Here’s how to do it…

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We watched a lot of ‘West Wing’ in college, my friends and I except we called it ‘Wang’, It was a show about the President of the United States and his staff and if there were ever forty two minutes to spare you could bet a ‘Wang’ DVD was burning hot on the TV in the common room. We were Wang-heads.

Now you might be asking ‘who would spend all their time watching a show about politics’ but the truth is ‘Wang’ wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t even about government. The backdrop of the White House and all its drama was just the delivery mechanism for something else.

The same goes for behavioral interview questions, they are a delivery mechanism too. Their purpose is not to tell specific stories about your past. They are to help interviewers assess how you are going to behave in the future. You can help them by using this three-point structure in your answers.

First, start by explaining why your answer is a good example of the question being asked. People tend to jump right into their prepared stories forgetting to explain why they are a good demonstration. If I ask you to ‘tell me about a time you had to figure out a complex problem,’ start by explaining what exactly made you’re your example particularly complex.

Second I want to know how you think about your work. Explain what your game plan was before you got started. Only talking about how you worked all night and weekend is not a strategy. Work smart.

Now, as Dwight D. Eisenhower once said ‘plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,’ so lastly, heeding Dwight’s wisdom discuss what you had to change along the way.

A new hire is going to need to be flexible. Yes you’ll need a certain level of expertise to start but the greatest indicator of future potential is that you have the awareness, confidence, and ability to learn new things on the fly. Explain what didn’t go as planned, how you pivoted, what you learned from it, and what you would do differently next time.

Your interviewer needs evidence that your success is repeatable. When you’re asked to ‘talk about a time you did X,Y,Z in the past,’ you’re actually being asked to ‘talk about how you would do X,Y,Z in the future.’

If I’m ever finding it difficult during an interview to extract the transferrable skills from a candidate I ask, ‘what advice would you give someone about to start a similar project that you just described?’ This forces the candidate to breakdown their process for me so that I can see how they operate. You might find it useful to proactively weave that into your answer.

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In a scene from episode 36, ‘The War at Home’ President Bartlett is smoking a cigarette out back of the Oval Office at night. Enters stage left Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry:

President Bartlett: I’m not allowed to smoke inside anymore.

Leo: I thought you were pretty much allowed to do whatever you wanted.

President Bartlett: Up to the point where you accidentally burn holes in priceless antiques.

Leo: You should stop smoking,

President Bartlett: Why?

Leo: You’ll live longer

President Bartlett: I smoke two cigarettes a day.

Leo: It’s a bad example

President Bartlett: For who? Russian spy satellites?...George Burns Shaw said you ‘don’t live longer, it just feels longer’.[1]

No, ‘Wang’ wasn’t about politics. As creator and head writer Aaron Sorkin said, ‘it was about seeing an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances[2]’. Sometimes it was a show about sacrifice and other times it was a show about camaraderie or friendship. The setting was the backdrop to deliver the greater themes. The specificity made it universal[3].

The same goes for your answers to behavioral interview questions. It’s not about the stories themselves. They are just a delivery mechanism. Your examples are proof of how you’re going to act in the future.


[1]  ‘The West Wing’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_West_Wing), created and written by Aaron Sorkin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Sorkin).

[2] From https://www.masterclass.com/classes/aaron-sorkin-teaches-screenwriting

[3] A frequent reminder from one of the great teachers of drama, David Mamet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Mamet .