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 of handling difficult situations at work and use real-life examples. Remember, difficult situations occur in every workplace – interviewers will want to understand how you have dealt with difficult situations previously so that 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.
Have a think about 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.
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 of them 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, you aren’t sure how to approach it, or due to the relationship you have with the person concerned. It may be that you find yourself if 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.
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 to share with the interviewers, and then use the following points to help you describe it:
S – Situation
In this section, talk about the situation itself. Describe the context in which you were working or the challenge you were facing.
T – Task
In this section talk about the tasks which needed to be completed in order to resolve or address the situation. What were you asked to do, or what did you decide to do?
A – Action
In this section talk about what your responsibility was in completing the tasks. Focus on the part you played specifically and how you contributed, rather than what your team or colleagues did.
R – Result
In this section, talk about what the outcome was, and what you achieved.
Some people also add an additional “R” at the end for Reflection. Here, you could talk about what you felt went well, and if there would be anything you would change next time.
Here are some example answers using a few of the situations given earlier.
Situation: A colleague and myself didn’t get along
In my previous role, there was one particular colleague that 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.
Tip – if using this one as an example, ensure that you aren’t talking about the other person too negatively.
Situation: 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 were 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.
Situation: 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 that I had a good relationship with. I conducted an investigation into 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 member. 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.