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  • Writer's pictureJames Newport

Behaviours: Making Effective Applications

Behaviours: The inescapable element of civil service job applications  

Talk to any civil servant about job applications and mention the word “behaviours”, and you are likely to see them shiver as they start subconsciously recalling the process of drafting, refining, drafting, and refining. 

However, though arguably a dehumanising and less than optimal element of the civil service recruitment process - behaviours are not the big beast they are initially perceived to be. Fundamentally, behaviours are just the civil service’s way of categorising broad experiences you will have into buckets. Have you ever had to weigh up information and make a decision - that’s “making effective decisions”. Have you ever had to consider the wider implications of something you’ve done and make sure it doesn’t cause unnecessary conflict - that’s “seeing the big picture”. Have you ever had to communicate with a number of different individuals or groups, and tailor how you give a message to ensure it lands the best it can to achieve an outcome - that’s “communicating and influencing”. 

Once you understand what principle the behaviour is trying to assess, you can then start identifying your experiences that best fit with that and go through the rhythm of meeting the various ways in which each grade will look to assess it. 

Drafting concise and high scoring behaviours is an art, not a science. There is variance in the scorers' judgments. The exact same behaviour I had drafted once scored a 7 (out of 7) in one application, and also scored a 3 in another application which I submitted at the very same time. That’s why it’s often beneficial to apply to multiple roles to help refine your behaviours, as once you are on average scoring above a 5, you can have greater confidence that your behaviours are good enough to get you to any invite for that grade. 

How to write a behaviour?

Behaviours are personal small stories and as such advice on “how to write behaviours” often doesn’t get into sufficient detail of how to best tailor your experience into a good answer. This is why at IGC we provide mentoring and application support so that we can provide you with tailored advice.

Nevertheless, for those looking for a general overview, below are some helpful tips on how to maximise your chances. These apply to both written behaviours and those you use in the interview.

Top tips:

Using the Situation, Task, Actions, Results format is vital (and actually also really helpful). 

  • Use the Situation and Task to concisely explain why the thing you worked on really mattered and what your specific role was. This should grab their attention.

  • In the Action section, set out the main blocks of things you did to make progress. Zoom in on a particular block which is most relevant for the Behaviour you’re being asked. If it’s Making Effective Decisions, focus on the critical decision, what the trade-offs were, what you did to land on a robust decision etc. Invite people into your thought process.

  • Use the Result element to not only share the positive outcomes as a result of your actions, but also the negative consequences that were avoided through the process. Be specific about indicators of success. If there are quantitative things include them e.g. £ amounts saved, include specific feedback you received.

  • Don’t lose the narrative by packing it full of too much complex detail which the reading/interviewer won’t be able to easily follow.

  • When preparing behaviour examples, make a grid of all the weighty things you’ve done in life (ideally in a professional context but if you’re just leaving university doesn’t have to be) and work out which behaviour could naturally fit with what you did. Most weighty things you’ve done are going to be good examples for multiple behaviours, but you’ll need to tailor what you say to the behaviour type.

At the interview:

  • You can 100% re-use behaviours you used on your written application, there is a good chance the interviewers won’t have been the people who read your written answers. Even if they do, they should not mark you down for repeating it.

  • You’ll know in advance the behaviour questions they’ll be asking so you’ll know what to prepare for. 

  • The phrasing of the questions are normally very simple and broad. Sometimes, they may ask for a particular specific angle on the behaviour which your first choice prepared answer doesn’t naturally cover. If so, then if you have a similarly strong alternate answer which does cover it, then it may be worth switching. However, it is fine to use your default answer and try to make some small tweaks to show that you’re engaging somewhat with their specific question as the answer will primarily be marked on the criteria for the behaviour itself. 

  • It’s better to say something competent sounding on the general behaviour than trying too hard to answer the specific question they’ve framed it under, as you’ll risk inventing a new behaviour on the fly to cover the specific angle and your grading will suffer.

  • Typically aim to speak for 3 (or 4) minutes. Don’t dilute the story by waffling on and instead see follow-up questions as an opportunity to supplement not as a threat or as a signal your answer was bad. Being an interviewer myself, I’ve sometimes just asked follow up questions when I liked the answer and wanted to learn more about their work!

IGC has put together some behaviour drafting worksheets that can be used for those drafting behaviours at HEO/SEO and Grade7/6 levels. Feel free to download a copy of these to help when you start investing and drafting behaviours.

NB. External collaborators helped draft this blog.

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