The interview question, "Tell me about a challenging work situation and how you overcame it," is a clever test of your ability to solve problems and stay calm under pressure. While it can be easy to stumble if you try and answer it off the cuff, a well-crafted answer can leave a lasting positive impression.
Unlike many interview questions, "Tell me about a challenging work situation and how you overcame it" is an opportunity for you to tell a story.
Why Hiring Managers Ask This Interview Question
A hiring manager or recruiter who asks you this question is looking for insight into the following questions:
How do you handle stress? Can you stay calm and resourceful under pressure?
When faced with difficulty, how do you approach problem-solving?
Can you reflect on your experiences and learn from them?
Can you tell a story that makes sense and is easy to follow?
What would you do if faced with a similar problem in the new position?
Can you avoid creating drama?
Do you display leadership skills?
Can you ask for help when it's needed?
Can you think on your feet?
Does your approach align with the company or team culture?
Choose the Right Story
The first step is to choose the right story. You want to stick to the truth but select a story that ultimately has a positive outcome.
To begin, write down all the different jobs you've had. Here are some idea prompts to help you remember challenging situations you overcame:
A coworker left suddenly, and you had to step in to ensure the work got done.
A customer was angry, and you were able to resolve their issues and make them happy.
A complex but essential project was assigned at the last minute without the available staff to complete it.
You were put in charge of a project despite almost no experience in that area.
The team dynamics were falling apart, and you found a way to bridge communications and get everyone back on track.
Everyone believed they understood the problem, but you saw it from another angle and created a solution that worked.
Once you've written down some ideas, pick one, and you're ready for the next step.
Cultivating Your Answer
If you're familiar with the STAR method, you know it stands for situation, task, action, and result. The STAR or SAR (situation, action, result) methods are both excellent frameworks for your answer to this interview question.
The beginning of your story sets the stage for the most important part—the result. You want to highlight the positive outcome and happy ending.
Set the scene. In one or two sentences, describe the situation. You want to include details that help the interviewer understand the context. You may want to include details such as:
The name of the company
Your job title at the time
The people involved in this scenario
What happened that created the situation—the events leading to it
Why the task fell to you
What needed to be done—the desired outcome
What made it challenging?
Why was this task important?
The Task and Your Actions
What was your role or responsibility in the situation, and what actions did you take to resolve it? Your reasons and thought process are as important as your actions, so walk them through what you did and why you did it.
Here are some elements you may want to include.
What was your initial reaction to the situation?
What options or factors did you consider before acting?
Was this a collaborative or team effort? Who were you working with, and how did you get buy-in?
What process did you use to brainstorm options and prioritize them?
What steps did you take to find the solution?
If you set the scene and described your process, sharing the positive outcome will bring your story to an impressive close. What were the results? What did you learn? How will you apply these lessons moving forward?
You want the end of your story to make you shine and imply positive results for the company—for example, a big sale, a happy client, or significant savings.
In your results, you may want to include the following:
What was the outcome?
What feedback did you get from your manager or other company leadership?
What feedback did you get from the client?
In what ways did your employer benefit?
What did you learn?
What would you do differently in the future?
Show That You Improve and Grow
While you wouldn't want to include challenging work situations in your resume or cover letter, it's a common interview question. Turning yours into a story with a positive outcome illustrates that you are a person who continues to improve and grow. These are highly valued traits your interviewer will appreciate.
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