Interview Question: "How Would You Deal With a Difficult Co-worker?"

Interview Question: "How Would You Deal With a Difficult Co-worker?"

Why Do Interviewers Ask Questions About Tricky Colleagues?

When you go for a job interview, your potential employers will want to know if you're a team player.

One way for them to evaluate this is by asking whether you often experience conflict with others and how you deal with this kind of stress?

This can be particularly relevant if they're interviewing for a role where the potential for conflict is likely, for example, in a complaints department or in fast-paced, high energy workplaces.

Prospective employers will ask about your past to ascertain whether you might be able to handle conflict in the future.

In a way, asking about difficult coworkers could be considered a trick question; therefore, you have to answer it carefully.

You want to be sure you answer this question in a realistic way, however, you want to avoid looking like you regularly have difficult interactions with coworkers.

Overall, you want to show emotional intelligence when you answer. After all, a little conflict is normal. Therefore, take care to explain that you are conscious of other people, their differing moods and how to manage them.

This helps build trust in you as a person and your experiences in working with others.

How Else Might This Question About Difficult Coworkers Be Asked?

Interviewers can ask the question about how you handle difficult coworkers in different ways.

You might be asked if you thrive in a workplace with lots of different personalities.

Or you could be pushed to describe a situation where you had a conflict with a colleague.

What the interviewer wants to know is how quickly you get frustrated by other people and whether you're able to manage your own emotions.

Therefore, it's worth emphasizing that you rarely get irritated by small things so that serious issues only arise when there's a lot at stake for the business itself.

Employers might also want to know how you define a difficult coworker or if you have trouble with authority. For example, do you think someone who talks too much is annoying?

They'll want to know if you are able to overlook things like having a tough boss and if you have an even-tempered outlook for most issues.

Showing self-awareness will go a long way toward reassuring an interviewer that you are not easily riled up.

How to Prepare for This Question

When you're preparing for an interview, you want to think about scenarios from your past that you might be able to bring up as evidence of your skills.

Taking time to reflect over your work history is important; however, if you're just starting out in your career, you can also talk about university situations or those from extracurricular activities.

Overall, you want to focus on stories that have a strong narrative arc. For example, a professional problem that you solved and came out well in.

If you are sharing situations where you failed to manage a difficult situation or caused long-term issues, this will work against you, so keep it positive.

It's worth building up a bank of evidence that can help support you in answering interview questions. These can be an around the job role you are applying for, so make sure you read it carefully.

For example, if it specifies the ability to work in a busy environment and being able to multitask, you want to be sure that you have multiple examples to show you are comfortable with both these situations.

How to Answer: How Have You Dealt With a Difficult Coworker?

When you're answering any interview question, it's good to think about structure, or you might end up rambling.

The STAR technique where you break down your answer into the exact Situation, Task, Action and Results to help you keep on track and make sure you share all the important information.

You also want to make most of your answers positive and solution-focused. Don't drag out the problem or the description of the difficult person.

You want the bulk of your answer to be on how you successfully resolved the situation.

It's also important to link your answer to your personal development and growth.

It's great for an interviewer to see that you’re a quick learner and able to implement knowledge in the future to avoid further conflict issues.

What to Avoid When Answering How You Have Dealt With a Difficult Coworker

It can be tempting to say that you've never been in a difficult situation with a coworker to avoid getting into tricky terrain, but if you do this, it will look like you are not self-aware.

It's natural to have had some small irritations with people that we spend all day working with. The key is to make it sound like you manage it with ease and grace.

Be careful not to be too derogatory. For example, you can say someone was always late, but you wouldn't want to say that they were selfish and lazy.

Similarly, you don't want to spend too much time talking about how angry or frustrated they made you feel. Stick to facts and neutral language so that you don't look like a hot-head.

Interview Question: How To Deal With A Difficult Coworker
Interview Question: How To Deal With A Difficult Coworker

Remember to focus on how quickly you bounce back from tricky situations as nobody wants to hire someone who shows a history of burn out.

Your aim in answering these type of interview questions is to reassure your interviewer that you are a safe choice and a capable hire.

Sample Answers for the Question of How to Deal With a Difficult Coworker

Here are some situations which would make good examples of how to answer a question around conflict with colleagues.

Example 1

This example shows self-awareness, forthrightness and the ability to fix things without making a fuss:

In my first job, there was a slight mismatch between the manager and myself over how feedback should be best delivered. She was Dutch, and there was a bluntness about her style, which I wasn't used to. After my first month there, I felt like I had to summon up my courage and say to her that although there were lots of ways of doing it, I preferred the 'sandwich approach’ to feedback.

Luckily she was intrigued, and my open approach to the conversation proved to be wise. I was able to explain that this was perhaps a more ‘American’ way of doing things (sandwiching a constructive criticism in between two positive bits of feedback), and she was happy to try it out. I think she was impressed that I asked for what I needed.

This situation really helped me see the importance of two-way communication and set me up to continue to express myself clearly in my career, especially when there's conflict. It's also led to really strong relationships with my managers, and as I've become one myself, it reminded me to always check in and ask what my team needs to obtain their best performance.

Example 2

In this scenario, you are showing you are a hard worker and problem-solver, as well as possessing emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, all of which are important in the workplace:

I had a coworker who was never able to finish his work on time. We worked in a really busy office, and the demands were heavy on all of us. His continued delays meant that I often had to pick up the slack, working harder and later to cover for him.

He was always really grateful, but I felt like it was getting out of hand after a couple of months. I said I had to have a proper conversation with him about the situation and think about how we could solve it once and for all.

We met in a neutral place and broke down the issue; I tried to listen and look for solution points. In the end, it became clear that he was signing up for more work than his job description had actually specified - and he agreed that a frank conversation with his manager was needed to clarify expectations.

Example 3

In this answer, you are showing soft skills, including the commitment to your growth and the ability to foster it in others:

I once had a young colleague who always liked to hog the glory on any successes we had as a team. I'd never really experienced that before and found it surprising. To my mind, it's important to be fair and to give credit where it's due.

I ended up speaking to my mentor about this situation during one of our regular meetings, and she suggested that I simply have an open chat with my colleague about this issue. I took him out for a drink after work, and in this low-stakes environment, I learned that he was actually insecure about being the newest member of our team and felt like he had to constantly show his worth.

I explained to my colleague that maybe he had taken it too far and that he'd look like more of a team player if he highlighted how everyone had worked well together to get the gains we did. I told him that being able to readily offer praise shows that you know how others operate and demonstrate a level of self-awareness that's more impressive than showing off is.

I also offered him the chance to connect with my mentorship program to see if a similar set-up would benefit his career. I was really impressed to see that he took my words to heart and his teamwork improved markedly as he began to be more reflective through this new development opportunity.

Final Thoughts

The interviewers want to see your emotional intelligence in action and whether you are able to diffuse a tricky situation.

How you handle a difficult colleague gives your prospective employers a better sense of how you would react in the future if hard things come up.

Everyone wants to work with people who are resilient; therefore, it's good to show clear examples that demonstrate your ability to stay calm when others might be losing their heads.

If you can impress an interviewer with your answer to this question, it will put you in a strong position to get the job you are after.


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