Common Interview Questions Explained: How to Answer “Can you give an example of a challenging situation you faced at work and how you handled it?”

You have made it past the preliminary questions in an interview with a great company, and you feel like the interviewers are getting to know you well. Then they throw this question at you:

“Can you give an example of a challenging situation you faced at work and how you handled it?”

...and your mind goes blank. 

Let’s avoid this scenario and prepare you to give a response that shows you understand the job roles and how well you fit into it the position.

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Why Do Interviewers Ask About Challenges at a Previous Job?

By asking about a challenging situation, interviewers are interested in understanding your ability to identify and analyze problems. They want to know if you can think critically and come up with effective solutions. And if you did so under pressure, then that is a bonus skill to highlight. We recommend taking some time before your interview to think of challenging instances you can draw from without bashing the previous company.

Additionally, interviewers ask about how you responded to challenges to assess your behavioral competencies, such as resilience, adaptability, and interpersonal skills. Your response can give the interviewer an idea of how you handle stress, work with others, and navigate challenging circumstances. This can help them understand if you will fit in well with the company’s culture and work well with your colleagues and/or clients.

How you articulate your experience in handling challenges is crucial. Your response can demonstrate your communication skills, including your ability to express complex situations, convey your thought process, and explain the outcomes.

Now that you understand the interviewer’s motivation for this question and what they may be looking for, let’s prepare to answer this question in a way that best showcases you.

Prepare by Using the STAR Method

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Structure your answer by describing the specific situation or challenge clearly, briefly outline the tasks involved, detail the actions you took, and then conclude with the positive results or outcomes.

Prepare yourself by having one or two of these situations in mind that you are proud of or feel you handled well. Practice the STAR method by trying to narrow down in your mind a short phrase or, better yet, one or two words to help you recall how you would like to explain your answer. Practice giving your answer out loud, perhaps even recording yourself. By doing this, your answer will come more easily and flow naturally.

How You Can Answer

Working as a project manager:

  • Situation: “A project team member unexpectedly resigned during the crucial phase of a high-stakes project that we were working on.”
  • Task: It was my responsibility to ensure that the project remained on track despite this setback and attempt to seamlessly transition the workload to the remaining team members.”
  • Action: “I identified critical tasks and redistributed responsibilities among remaining team members, got to work recruiting for the vacant position, opened channels of communication to keep the team informed and motivated, and conducted training sessions.”
  • Result: “We not only successfully met the project deadline but also strengthened the bonds of our team to handle future challenges.”

Working as an accountant:

  • Situation: “In my role as an accountant, we were preparing for an upcoming audit, and it was discovered that there were discrepancies in the financial records related to a major client account.”
  • Task: “My task was to investigate the discrepancies, reconcile the financial records, and rectify any errors before the audit. This required a thorough understanding of the company's accounting processes, collaboration with other departments, and presenting accurate financial information to auditors.”
  • Action: “To address the situation, I initiated a detailed review of the client account transactions, comparing the records across multiple databases. I collaborated with the sales and customer service teams to gather additional information and validate the accuracy of the entries.”
  • Result: Through the investigation and reconciliation process, we were able to correct the discrepancies in the financial records before the audit. The audit went smoothly, and the auditors commended our transparency and corrective actions.”

Working as a Team Leader:

  • Situation: “In my previous role as a team leader, I encountered a significant personality conflict within my team. Two team members, despite being highly skilled, had conflicting communication styles and had difficulty working together. This was affecting team morale and hindering collaboration on important projects.”
  • Task: My task was to address the personality conflict and improve communication between the team members, making it a more positive and collaborative work environment for everyone.”
  • Action: I scheduled a private meeting with each team member individually to understand their perspectives and concerns. It became clear that the conflict stemmed from differences in communication preferences and working styles. During these conversations, I actively listened, acknowledged their viewpoints, and remained neutral.”
  • Result: “Through these interventions, we were able to improve the working relationship between the team members. The workshop and open communication allowed them to understand and appreciate each other's strengths, leading to better collaboration on projects. The conflict resolution efforts positively impacted team morale and productivity. Over time, the team members developed a more cohesive working relationship, and the overall team dynamic improved.”

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