Answering the Interview Question – How Did You Handle a Difficult Situation at Work?
Answering interview questions where you are required to talk about a difficult situation can be daunting. However, it’s important that you talk honestly about your experience and use real-life examples. Remember, difficult situations occur in every workplace – interviewers will want to understand how you have dealt with the circumstances previously so they can assess how you may react to situations in your potential new role. How you answer the question will also give them an insight into the process you followed, how you react to the unexpected, how resilient you are, and how you communicate.
Think of examples of difficult situations that have occurred in either your current role or previous roles in advance of your interview. Prepare some notes for these so that you have something to refer to if you feel thrown. To help, take a look at the job description to make your answers as relatable as possible.
Difficult Situations in the Workplace
Here are some examples of common difficult situations in the workplace:
- Not getting on with a colleague
- Not feeling able to speak up about something you feel is wrong
- Your team doesn’t pull together
- Dealing with a disciplinary issue
- Someone has made an insensitive comment
The above can be considered difficult due to their impact either on yourself, someone else, or both. If you’re in a management role, you may need to address these situations directly which can feel daunting, particularly
- If you’re new to managing
- If you’re not sure how to approach it
- If you have a good relationship with the person concerned
It may be that you find yourself in the opposite position where you don’t feel able to have any control of the situation, which can have a real impact on your day-to-day experience at work. Or, you may have addressed the situation and it went well, but it was still really tricky. All of these experiences are common and valid.
Structuring Interview Questions
When faced with the question, ‘How did you handle a difficult situation at work?,’ a useful way to structure your answer is by using the STAR method.
To put the STAR method into practice, start by thinking of an example you’d like to share with the interviewers, and then use the following four points to help you describe it:
S – Situation
Firstly, introduce the situation. Remember, the interviewers will not have any prior context of what you were working on or the challenges that this came with. Make sure they have just enough content to understand.
T – Task
Once the foundations of the situation have been laid, it’s time to talk about the specific task you set out to complete. What was your overall aim and what needed to be addressed?
A – Action
Now it’s time to show the interviewers how you got involved and took action. Look to answer the question, what was your responsibility with this task? Focus on how you contributed and the part you played, less can be said about what your team did. You want to highlight your input.
R – Result
Round off your account by discussing the outcome and the result that was achieved. Don’t be afraid to add an additional ‘R’ to your STAR method for ‘Reflection.’ If there’s anything you feel you could have done differently or better, add a small evaluation.
Example Interview Answers
Here are some examples of answers using a few of the difficult situations given earlier.
A Colleague and I Didn’t Get Along
In my previous role, there was one particular colleague whom I didn’t get along with. I felt that they excluded me from team conversations and would never respond to my requests for information or help. I considered the best way to approach this for a while – do I talk to my manager, and other colleagues, or do I approach the person directly? I decided to approach the person directly in the first instance. I spoke to them about how I felt and gave examples of some of their behaviours. The person responded positively to this approach and didn’t realise what they were doing. They apologised for not responding to my requests for information and explained that it was because they felt so overwhelmed with work. The situation improved in the following weeks as I was aware of their situation too and was able to offer support.
Top Tip – if using this one as an example, ensure that you consider your tone when talking about the other person. Avoid coming across too negatively.
I felt that I Couldn’t Speak Up When Something was Wrong
In my current role, I came across a part of a process that I felt wasn’t working very well for our customers. I wanted to raise this with my manager, but in the past when the team put forward new ideas these never progressed, so I was worried about suggesting something myself. I decided it was really important to be able to speak up. I, therefore, confided in a trusted colleague who helped me to structure what I wanted to say, showing the impact on the customer and giving me the confidence to approach my manager. The next day I spoke to my manager about the situation and it was received more positively than I expected. I think this was due to the way I explained the situation and adapted my approach so that it was well-received. She is going to take my proposal to the management meeting next week for approval. I would now feel confident to put ideas forward in the future.
Dealing with a Disciplinary Issue at Work
After a few months of being in my first management role, I was faced with a potential disciplinary issue with a team member. I’d attended training on the process but had not put anything into practice. I felt daunted by this as it was with a team member whom I had a good relationship with. I investigated the allegation and met with the individual. I, unfortunately, had to recommend that the case go forward to a disciplinary hearing, which was heard by my manager. This was a difficult conversation to have with my team members. The HR team supported me through the whole process which I found invaluable as I wanted to ensure I did everything correctly. I learned the importance of a properly conducted investigation from the experience.
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