Answering "Tell Me How You Handled A Difficult Situation At Work" In An Interview

When interviewers ask you, “Please describe a difficult situation you encountered in a previous job and how you resolved it?” you might think to yourself, why are they asking this? And how exactly should I answer this question? It’s a difficult situation because the future employer or hiring manager is really trying to understand your approach to the work environment. But for you, first hearing this question, you might think to yourself that they’re inquiring about mistakes that you’ve made and that you might take that the wrong way.

Let’s dig into this question as a whole and try to understand the exact reason for why the hiring manager is asking this question and how you’ll be able to answer it effectively. We’ll also cover some ways that you should avoid answering this question.

What questions are in alignment to this question

Here’s a few variations that you might hear from a hiring manager and how you’ll know they’re essentially asking the question which this guide is about. Those questions include:

With all of these questions, they are asking the same thing that this guide relates to. So if you are in the interview process and you hear a question that falls within a similar vein of questioning as this, then you’ll know exactly how to answer.

Why do they ask this question

There’s a lot of misinformation as to why employers ask this question. In general, the biggest thing they are looking for is the ability to self-reflect on the process of which you analyze your own performance and continue to improve it, without the manager having to do so for you. Think about it, if you are going to be hiring someone, and you want this person to be a high performer. Then you’ll be looking for a candidate who can identify and understand when they’ve done something that could be improved upon later, and putting together the action items or next steps to be able to act on that. Being able to reflect upon the past and coming to positive conclusions about the work environment scenarios you’ve been a part of shows leadership and proactive work ethic.

What you want to avoid answering with

In general, great employees are often quite selfless. They think of the business first. What the business needs before they think about their own needs. That’s what the ideal candidate shows the qualities of. So when you are answering this question, try to avoid any dramatic situations which place a “finger pointing” scenario or some type of blame. Let's say it was a communication mishap with another employee, try not to say “It was their problem and they should have done this..” That’s somewhat of a finger pointing communication style and indirectly shows the hiring manager that you might be difficult to work with or not empathetic.

Quite simply, here are the things you should avoid:

What makes an effective answer

What makes a great answer to this question is one that shows reflection. Meaning, if you can describe a situation you were in, then describe what actions you would take next time to correct the situation or improve the situation, that is the ideal answer. You need reflection, action, and empathy. Ideally, if you know something about the business or the business goals for the company you are interviewing with, you can use that as part of your situation for the explanation.

When you are speaking to this question, this is an opportunity for you to tell a deep and compelling story. Start from the beginning, think about it as if you are describing a fairytale type of story. Meaning, speak of yourself almost in the third person. Don’t go too in-depth into the story, you should be able to answer this question within 5 - 8 minutes. Anything over than that is just too much and shows that you might have had an emotional reaction to the situation, which doesn’t show leadership.

Think of answering this question in a way that shows your own personal style. Are you more empathetic than most people? Do you feel like you have better leadership skills than most people? If that’s the case then try to position your action items, the ways you would have done better, towards the end of the story and position those facts in a way that play well with your own personal sense of working style and personality.

Examples for answering this question

“There was a situation between myself and another colleague, who usually produces some high quality work. In the span of two weeks, I was noticing that their work was starting to fall in terms of quality. Over the span of a few weeks, it started to develop into some tension between us. I approached him in a way that I thought was encouraging, I asked them why the work wasn’t as great as prior work. This caused some defensive behavior on their part, understandably so. I realized that this was my fault for being somewhat accidentally confrontational in the engagement. What I should have done is ask them, how are things? Are things going okay? And start the conversation from there. Maybe there was something happening at home which was distracting to their work. Or maybe they were starting to feel unhappy in the workplace and I could have helped with that. In general, I should have approached the situation with a little more empathy and engaged in the conversation versus simply confronting it.”

As you can see from the example answer above. It tells a story, it reflects on a situation, it puts together an action for which the employer can understand we’ve gained leadership skills, and it puts the company first versus yourself. If you have a situation which shows results, maybe a situation where you were struggling to communicate the direction you wanted to take something, winning that situation, and ultimately experiencing an outcome from it; all the better. Good luck on your future employment opportunity and remember to keep these steps in mind when answering this question. As long as you keep it brief, keep it direct, and show that “no one is perfect” — you’ll do a fantastic job.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams.

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