How to Answer the Interview Question “Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

David Luther
by David Luther
Get The Job, Guides - 12 months ago
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Interview

Conflict is part of life, and unless you’re exceedingly lucky and don’t have to work (why are you reading this?) then it’s also part of your work life. I mean, life is a whole series of conflicts, and how you resolve them says a lot about who you are as a person — which is why interviewers love to ask you about it, usually in one of these forms:

  • Tell me about an assignment when you had to work with someone difficult.
  • Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work.
  • Give an example of a time you had to respond to an unhappy customer or coworker.
  • Tell me about a time that you disagreed with a manager.

And I’m sure that if you put your mind to it, you can think about a time you’ve had to deal with a… shall we say, fly in the ointment. Thorn in your side. Pain in your ass. A real turd sandwich.

They ask this question to gain insight into your behavior, interpersonal skills, and your overall ability to manage conflict — not to learn about how much of a jerk your former coworker or customer was. How you answer this question is almost as important as the answer you give, so here are some things to remember.

It’s a behavioral question

Every interview has a unique focus, but some questions are asked so often, it makes sense to do all you can to prepare for them. In order to be successful, you need a strategy — not scripted answers. Your goal should be to emphasize your past experiences that best fit what each interviewer is looking for.

This is an example of a behavioral question, those questions that typically start with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…”

Interviewers use behavioral questions to learn a little bit about you beyond just the words you say, kind of like using third-person characterization in a book. An author can say one of two things:

  • “Larry was a real jackass, he was mean and stingy.”
  • ”Larry was the type of guy who would write, ‘Do a better job’ on the tip line of a restaurant check.”

Instead of taking you for your word when you say “I’m a team player who seeks to resolve conflict,” they seek examples of how you’ve handled specific situations in the past. The idea is that past job performance will say a lot about how you would handle yourself if hired for the job at hand.

So you need to provide examples of how you behave

What you definitely don’t want to do is spend a lot of time focusing on the problem and not enough time discussing what you did to solve it. This can make you look like a whiner, and one of the focuses of interviewers is to figure out what you’ll be like to work with.

And if it seems like you’re better at identifying problems and talking about them rather than fixing them, then it doesn’t speak well for you. So as part of your interview preparation, think of an example of a conflict and make sure that it speak to how you solve problems.

Do you avoid conflict or face it? Do you think it through, or are you impulsive? Do you use constructive techniques to resolve the situation?

Using the STAR method

I know, it’s just as grade-school cheesy as most HR acronyms are, but it’s a good starting place for deciding how to succinctly describe a conflict and solution.

Which is good, because you don’t want the one thing your interviewer remembers to be that you really like bitching about your past employer.

Situation and Task — Give context for the story and explain where the conflict arose from.

We hired this employee because of her writing quality and experience at a daily newspaper, where we knew she was accustomed to hitting deadlines. Her quality was great, but we kept having to shift projects around because we couldn’t rely on her consistently, and when I addressed it she got angry with me first, then began crying.

Action — Talk about how you constructively and professionally acted to remedy the situation.

I could see that she was taking the criticism personally, so I stepped back and generally explained how missed deadlines affected the performance of the organization, that although the quality of her work was great the lack of consistency was overshadowing that. She was taken aback because this was the first time anyone had mentioned the missed deadlines to her, and she wasn’t aware that it was an issue for anyone other than herself, or that she could ask for help. We scheduled regular status update meetings for her to check in each week and let the staff know where she stood on her assignments.

Results — End on a positive note, showing how your actions had a desirable outcome.

She apologized for losing her cool and thanked me for understanding her emotion. She hasn’t missed a deadline since, and as a result of the successful communication we established with her we implemented status updates for all of our team, which lead for an overall decrease in missed deadlines and better cooperation amongst colleagues.

Remember, give a real example — even if you have to fudge the severity or players in the story, don’t try to make it all up, because they’ll see through you. Stick to the main points, be concise, and try to avoid blaming others while making sure to take ownership for the success.

Practice your delivery, but don’t try to memorize it.

Don’t spend too much time complaining or shirking responsibility

You might not know your interviewer that well, but you can assume that they’re on your side: don’t spend a ton of time explaining how no one can get along with Janice and how you’d done everything you were supposed to.

That said, you might want to avoid putting out your own fires. That is, try not to give an example of a conflict or problem that arose directly as a result of your own doing that you then fixed. This isn’t an opportunity for rigorous honesty in that regard.

And it’s ok if you’re still a little hurt or upset about the situation. But one thing you definitely don’t want to do is spend an inordinate amount of time setting the scene, thereby neglecting to demonstrate your problem-solving skills and how the conflict was resolved.

Don’t:

  • Completely blame someone else or insult them
  • Give too many details about why it isn’t your fault
  • Give an example where the situation was caused directly by you

Do:

  • Give examples of a positive, quantifiable outcome
  • Use a specific example, preferably one that is relatable to the interviewer
  • Explain the resolution, not just the problem

Don’t respond in a way that makes you seem combative

You can do this in two ways, by either giving an example of a combative resolution or by responding to the question itself in an aggressive way.

So, when responding to how you addressed a problem, saying something like, “I’d invite that person to meet me in the parking lot and we’d sort it out man to man” is bad not only because you sound hostile, but also because you’re assuming the gender in this case.

It’s 2017, people, women fight too. But also, don’t read into the interviewer asking this question.

This isn’t a fun question to answer, and like “What’s your biggest weakness?” people get thrown off by it. Just remember that everyone experiences conflict in some form in the workplace and the question doesn’t signal that the interviewer thinks you’re a combative turd sandwich who can’t get along.

Actually answer the question

That said, don’t try so hard to seem non-combative that you pretend like you’ve never had a workplace conflict. Common interview questions are common because they lend insight into what you’re like, and they apply broadly to most professions and people.

So don’t get so caught up in trying to be the “perfect candidate” that you fail to answer the question, or come up with a weak example. If you went out to lunch each week as an office, don’t cite the time that you proposed Asian fusion when Ryan chose Mexican, but Drew really wanted Thai.

I mean, real talk that’s a good solution, but unless your interviewer takes food as seriously as I do then it’s not likely to reflect upon your conflict resolution skills as effectively as resolving a dispute about the direction of a work project.

Relax, and remember that everyone’s had a conflict (including the interviewer)

In all likelihood, your interviewer will be able to relate to your story on some level, and that’s what this is about: forming a rapport and showing how you’re the best fit for the position. Don’t position yourself as a person who always avoids conflict, because a bit of bravery is an admirable quality.

You’re selling yourself, and when you’re selling anything you don’t like to talk about how it’s had problems.

But think of a car: we’d like to think that it has such superior handling that it never gets into accidents. But, sometimes, you or other drivers will cause a problem; and you want to know how it handles bad terrain — sell yourself like an airbag.

Or something, you get the idea.

You are invariably going to have to deal with people who don’t contribute effort, contribute awful opinions, or people who are just generally terrible people. How you respond to the conflict and unease this question generates is, in a super meta way, indicative of how you’ll handle future conflicts.

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