How to answer “the conflict” question in an interview
No matter what type of environment you work in, you’re likely to experience varying degrees of conflict in any role – whether it be a simple disagreement about how to manage a project, or more serious incidents if toxicity.
This is why an interview question like “tell me a time when you experienced conflict in the workplace” is one that frequently gets asked in job interviews.
It’s a question that can easily throw off a lot of job applicants, however when answered well provides a great opportunity to show off your resilience and relationship building capabilities, two highly sought-after attributes.
So, just why is it important to answer this question correctly, and how should you respond if you are asked this in an interview?
Being a great candidate is about more than just possessing the skills and qualifications for the job. Many tasks or projects involve interacting with stakeholders, colleagues and clients to get the job done, all of whom have differing expectations and agendas. Employers want to get a sense of how well you might approach conflict if it were to occur.
Asking you about a time when you encountered workplace conflict provides an employer with an understanding of your emotional intelligence (EQ) to determine how adept you are in managing relationships. Your answer provides insight into how you would react in certain situations, and the acquired learning you’ve developed as a result of your experiences.
Our specialist consultants have heard this question answered both insightfully well and in ways that signal silent alarms. Interestingly, those who answer this question poorly don’t seem to be aware that they’re doing so.
We have therefore provided some guidelines for job applicants that may be useful.
Pick a relevant situation and be as specific as possible
Briefly describe the context of the conflict that occurred at your workplace and your role in that conflict. It is important that you are not only explaining how conflict might occur, but that you provide a specific example of when it did occur.
Ensure you choose an instance that resulted in a positive outcome for all parties involved, and include any lessons you may have learned or how you manage conflict differently as a result. Be concise, to the point and make sure you don’t speak negatively of past employers or colleagues, as this won’t look favourably on you.
For example – “In my previous company we introduced new technology after 10 years of using the same one. There were a number of staff who were finding it difficult to use and were very vocal in their dislike of the product, preferring the previous way of doing things. This was causing conflict to arise with management and amongst teams, as staff were having difficulties completing tasks as efficiently.”
Discuss the steps/actions you took
Next, expand on the steps or approach you took to resolve the conflict. When describing a conflict, be sure to own your part as well. Rather than talking about how a former colleague was a ‘difficult personality’, try to focus on the issue instead of the person. Talk about what went wrong, what you learned and how you’d avoid such conflict in the future.
For example – “Once I understood that staff were having trouble operating this new system, I decided to put together a short training session that went into detail about the new processes, and allowed me to answer any questions they had. I explained why implementing this new system will be a win for the company in terms of productivity and profitability. Following the training, we identified ‘master users’ and allowed people to use them for added support if and when required.”
Emphasise the results
Finally, you should explain what occurred once the conflict was resolved. Did it change how you will approach things in the future, or were there lessons learnt in the process? Emphasise the resolution that took place, as opposed to dwelling on the conflict itself.
For example – “My training session provided my team with a better understanding of this new system, and an environment where they could express their opinions and share feedback. In future, I would provide the option for downloading a manual, attending group sessions or one on one training at the initial roll out of a new system, as this is the best way to minimise any initial confusion and stress of a new product, and allow people to choose how they are trained .”
Know and avoid the pitfalls
The key to answering conflict-related questions is to be honest and professional, and to show the potential employer you can learn and adapt to different and often difficult situations. When responding to this type of questioning, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Do not blame – Whether you are right or wrong, don’t place the blame on the other party/parties when explaining the situation. Instead, explain how it was resolved satisfactorily for all involved.
- Refrain from getting too personal or emotional – So many times people get very emotional when answering this question. This comes back to focusing on the issue rather than the personality, and not labelling them as “difficult” or “unreasonable”.
- Don’t go into too much detail – As well as remaining calm, do not expand on how bad the other person’s behaviour was. This isn’t a story you’re telling friends over a coffee, so it’s crucial to keep it as brief as possible.
Workplace conflicts may happen every now and then, but the key is to show your professionalism and explain what you’ve learnt from the experience.
If you’re looking for more advice on how to best respond to interview questions, check out our Ultimate Interview Guide, which is filled with useful strategies and techniques to help you nail your next interview.