Hiring managers and recruiters want to get an accurate picture of your personality in the shortest possible time during a job interview. Therefore, in many interviews you will be presented with an example of a difficult situation and asked how you would handle it. The way you answer such a question reveals quite a lot about you as a person and as an employee. After all, it calls on both your emotional and cognitive skills. But how best to answer such questions, and how to prepare for them?
"You should actually see a question about a difficult work situation as an opportunity to show your worth," says Gitte Peeraer, Senior Talent Acquisition & Learning Specialist at international recruitment firm Walters People. "Take the opportunity to talk about your skills and steer the interview in a direction where you can show that you are right for the role."
For example, a common question during a job interview is, "Describe a situation where you had to do more than your described tasks." To answer this question, it is useful to follow the STAR method. With this method, you can turn your answer into a structured story, highlighting your skills and achievements in a clear way that makes you stand out among other professionals with the same profile. STAR here stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. Gitte explains:
"Start your answer by explaining the context, your role in it and the associated challenges for you and the organisation," says Gitte. "This is background information that is needed to place it the rest of your story."
Example: When I started in my current job, I found out that we often had problems getting signatures on our new client reports in time, as they had to be approved personally by the manager. This manager was quite intimidating and rarely available, and as a result, we were regularly late for our deadlines.
Gitte: "Tell the interviewer what goal you had to achieve within that situation. What was your specific task or assignment to help the organisation with this challenge?"
Example: I then studied the existing approval processes and listed all the potential risks and bottlenecks. It struck me that some reports did indeed require that manager's signature, but that a lot of pressure could be removed if other managers were given authority to sign some reports.
"Describe the actions you took to complete the task or solve the problem," advises Gitte. "What action did you take and why? How were your ideas received by stakeholders and your colleagues? Be as specific as possible about your actions."
Example: I was asked to present this proposal to the manager, which was quite exciting, but I had stressed that late delivery of a report to a client could be negative for the company. When I had explained everything, the manager thanked me warmly. He said he had been looking for a solution to delegate some of his responsibilities for some time. As a result, an updated version of the procedure, the one I had proposed, was put in place with almost immediate effect. All my colleagues have found the process much more efficient since then.
"Tell what was the final result of your actions. Did it improve the situation? What did you learn from it? Try to give measurable results if possible, such as figures or percentages. Positive results highlight your competence and impact," Gitte knows.
"On the other hand, you don't always need a positive outcome to tell a strong story."
"Sometimes it is good to admit that the outcome was not what you had hoped for. This shows that you can think critically and that you are able to learn from your mistakes. By presenting everything too rosy, your answer will not come across as realistic and authentic. Being honest is the message."
Example: This experience taught me that when you want to make constructive changes, it is important to look beyond the personality of your interlocutor. As long as you come up with convincing arguments that benefit everyone. And if you raise a problem, you are more likely to be listened to if you come up with a solution at the same time!
"However, this method hinges on preparation," warns Gitte. "You cannot possibly formulate these kinds of answers ad hoc. So first delve into the job description to get an idea of the questions that may be asked. If you are applying through a recruitment agency, your recruitment consultant will also be able to tell you exactly what skills the employer is looking for. Finally, of course, you should think extensively beforehand about which of your competences, attributes and individual achievements reveal the most interesting story about you."