Tackling interview questions about conflict and difficulties

content job interview

When going to job interviews, most candidates rightly prepare to give examples of their achievements or situations in which they made useful contributions to their organisations. However, interviewers sometimes ask questions specifically about failings, mistakes, conflicts or problems that candidates have experienced.

‘When was the last time you were criticised or received negative feedback?’

Claiming that you have never received a negative comment is simply not credible. That would be like saying that you are already perfect and have nothing left to learn.

To answer this question well, give an example of an occasion in which you both received criticism and changed your behaviour as a result of it. You might also want to mention that you are keen to hear constructive criticism as you understand its importance in helping you to improve your skills and grow as a professional.

For instance, a candidate might say something like: ‘Six months ago, my line manager told me that I was using too much technical jargon when speaking to our internal customers. I didn’t realise I had been doing that so I asked my line manager for more details and I took notes. Afterwards, I reflected on it and thought about ways I could explain things to internal customers in more straightforward language. I continue to think about the best way to say things in order to engage our internal customers because I’m keen to improve how I come across to stakeholders.’

‘Tell us about a major disagreement you had at work.’

Interviewers may ask you about a major disagreement. However, talking about a major conflict has the potential for making you out as someone who is difficult to work with. Instead, the ideal response would be to say that you have never had a major disagreement – only relatively minor ones.

When explaining how you dealt with a disagreement, you might want to mention that you listened to the other person and demonstrated empathy for their situation. Perhaps also explain how you remained calm and tried to be as helpful as possible.

For example, a candidate’s response might go as follows: ‘Stakeholders in the business are always asking me to break the rules for them. Recently, a manager in our services division wanted authorisation to spend a lot of money on technical equipment. I apologised and explained that this wasn’t possible due to existing policies. She got angry with me but I stayed calm. I said I could see her point of view but that it wasn’t within my authority to allow the spend. I also asked her why she needed the equipment. Later, I researched some alternatives and sent her ideas for other, less expensive ways she could deal with her need and eventually we found a solution that was surprisingly inexpensive.’

‘When was the last time you felt stressed or severely under pressure at work?’

This question contains a trap. Interviewers may ask you about times you felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. But it is important that you give an answer only concerning an occasion in which you experienced stress or pressure but coped successfully with it.

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Consider that a strong candidate might say something like: ‘During the pandemic, our business had major issues with cashflow. Our finance director had a plan of action that required really long hours. I was at my computer by 7am every morning and often finishing after 7pm every night for several months. The business nearly did run out of money but through our collective efforts we restructured and saved the business. It was hard work and a huge amount of pressure and responsibility, but I learned so much about negotiating with customers and making difficult commercial decisions.’

‘Tell me about a piece of work that you were disappointed with’

This is a negatively phrased question that invites you to talk about a time you failed. The best way to answer this kind of question is to talk about a situation in which you did everything right, but did not get the result you wanted purely because of factors that were outside of your control. You may also want to end by sharing any lesson you learned as a result of the situation.

For example, a candidate might respond to the question by saying something along the lines of the following: ‘I recently created a spreadsheet for the business budgets of several of our branches. I spent weeks getting input from business managers and suppliers and my line manager told me I was doing a good job. Unfortunately, our CEO unexpectedly announced that we would be closing two of those branches, so my spreadsheets were never used. But I learned a lot from the process of putting those budgets together, which will allow me to do it very quickly in the future.’

‘What do (or did) you like least about your current (or last) job?’

Taken at face value, this interview question seems to invite you to talk about the less desirable qualities of your current or most recent job. However, speaking too negatively about your work could lead interviewers to believe that you are a generally negative person – the kind of person who will complain and be pessimistic in nature.

The best way to answer this question is to mention briefly only one or two minor issues, but to put them into the context of the many things you enjoyed about your work. Alternatively, go on to talk about the things that attract you to the role for which you are being interviewed.

An example response might go as follows: ‘I have sometimes been frustrated by our systems as they are very old and not always fit for purpose. That has often meant having to do workarounds, which has wasted time. But I mostly enjoy the job, get on with the team and my supervisor, and have learned a lot.’

‘What weaknesses would you say your current (or former) line manager has (or had)?’

As with the previous question, your tactic should be to speak mostly positively about your line manager. Then, mention only one relatively minor weakness.

For instance, a candidate might say something like: ‘I can’t really think of any real weaknesses. She assigns work in a clear and fair manner. She’s optimistic, calm and has a sense of humour, too. I suppose a weakness is that she hasn’t given me quite as many stretch assignments as I would like, which is one of the reasons I am interested in this role here with you.’

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace@robyeung

More information

This article was first published in Student Accountant in December 2022 | Get the SA app now

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