When an interviewer asks you for examples of difficult decisions in the workplace, and how you arrived at answers to those decisions, they want to get a handle on how you might handle a difficult decision at the company you're interviewing for. They also want to get a feel for how strong your critical thinking skills are.
Interview questions surrounding examples of difficult decisions are likely to be asked of those in management roles—it's hard up there at the top! It is therefore a good idea to focus on decisions that have had a direct impact on your employees. These types of decisions are, without a doubt, some of the most difficult ones that managers have to make.
At some point in their careers, most managers have had to have a slightly (or full-on) awkward behavior or performance-related conversation with an employee. Many have had to fire employees, or lay them off. If you're thinking the above situations can be deemed examples of difficult decisions in the workplace, you are 100 percent correct.
The bottom line on questions like this? There are no right or wrong answers—recruiters and hiring managers simply want to hear you talk through an example of how you handled a difficult situation to gauge how you'd handle one down the road. The thinking here is that your past behavior will be a pretty good predictor of what you'll do in the future in a similar situation.
The Best Ways to Respond to Tough Questions
When providing answers to examples of difficult decisions in the workplace, you should of course focus on situations that have occurred in a professional context (i.e., in the particular work world you live in). Do not pick an example of a difficult decision you've faced in your personal life!
Common, challenging situations people in management roles might have to make include deciding who to promote when there are multiple strong candidates, firing someone who is incompetent (but well-liked by the staff), or deciding on who to let go if budget cuts necessitate layoffs.
You want to come across as confident and capable of making huge decisions in a smart, level-headed manner (after considering all the options). Avoid examples of difficult decisions in the workplace that make you seem indecisive or uncertain.
Specificity is key when walking the interviewer through your answer(s). Tell them what you did, how you did it, and how your decision benefited the employer. It is important to discuss how you weighed your options, as the interviewer is interested in learning how you think.
PS: LiveCareer offer guidance on how to answer interview questions of all stripes.
Points to Emphasize
Keep it relevant
When ruminating on examples of difficult decisions in the workplace, choose a decision that is in some way relevant to the job and the ways in which you feel you're an ideal fit.
This will make it easier for you to discuss the situation candidly and with convincing detail. Describe what made the choice difficult. It may have involved competing priorities, conflicts among co-workers, keeping emotions at bay, or potential risks to you or others.
A lot of people can get carried away when sharing a story. Since you have a limited amount of time to convince the interviewer that you're The One for the job, prepare your answer in advance. Make sure your answer runs no more than two-to-three minutes.
Highlight your skills
Hopefully you'll demonstrate your decision-making skills when answering. You should also consider mentioning other positive traits you possess that may have helped you to make the difficult decision.
Mistakes You Should Avoid
Don't go negative
Don't go negative when walking an interviewer through your examples of difficult decisions, and how you arrived at the decisions (or how you may have been forced to arrive at it by your current or previous employer—think layoffs).
Don't have a pity party
Answer in a manner that doesn't paint you as the victim in the situation. Discuss the decision you faced without disparaging others.
Don't get too personal
While your answer could address how the decision affected you personally, don't get too personal—this might make the interviewer feel uncomfortable, or you might end up revealing something about yourself that shouldn't be revealed in an interview.
When offering examples of difficult decisions and how you worked through them, aim to portray yourself as someone of solid character—as someone who's armed with a sound sense of judgment, and who knows how to stay cool when under pressure. Here's one sample answer:
"The most difficult decision I've had to make was one involving layoffs. At my last company, after we lost three big clients and the strategy of the business changed, I had no choice but to let go of four employees in our German office. It was a very difficult decision on a personal level—I'd hired two of the employees myself, and really liked all of them. But I recognized that the circumstances of the business had changed, and that situations like this one are sometimes inevitable when business circumstances take a different, unexpected turn.
I laid the employees off in a very clear and direct, yet empathetic, manner, and made sure they all fully understood the details of their severance packages. In the end, they all walked away understanding that the decision was a purely business-related one, one that was necessary to make in order to keep the company, and its mission, afloat."
Here's another sample answer:
"One of the hardest decisions I've had to make was choosing between two strong team members for a promotion. I personally liked one person better than the other, but I had to choose the person I liked less, because they were more qualified to succeed in the new role. Occasionally, I've also had to promote someone younger over someone who was a lot more senior, simply because they were a lot more technologically advanced and willing to work more, which was needed for that particular role. In situations like these, I try to ensure that the person who I don't choose gets the training or help they need in order to one day move forward."
Trotting out examples of difficult decisions in the workplace can hardly be described as the most fun part of a job interview, but remember—doing so allows you a chance to shine, and show how you worked through situations with your critical thinking skills.
Anticipating that a question like this might be asked in a job interview is a wise strategy. Do not get caught off-guard! Think about some examples of difficult decisions in the workplace prior to the interview, prep well-thought-out answers regarding the difficult decisions, and practice your answer(s) in a confident tone. Best of luck!
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