As you prepare for upcoming job interviews, it’s to your advantage to think about all likely questions that might come your way. Doing this helps you generate ideas and responses at a time when you aren’t under extreme pressure. This calm environment, when you truly have the time to think, is when you’re going to come up with your best ideas.
If you’ve been scouring the internet to find common interview questions so you can rehearse your answers, you’ve likely stumbled upon this behavioral interview question:
“Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it.”
Whew, that’s a doozy!
Not to fear - we’ve got you covered on exactly how you should answer it so you impress the hiring manager and ace your job interview. With the framework we’re about to show you, you’ll be ready with an impactful response that the hiring manager loves.
Before we dive into the framework, let’s get grounded in why this question is asked in the first place.
This is a common job interview question asked by recruiters and hiring managers. It’s often used because how you react gives the recruiter valuable insight into:
Your problem solving abilities (you were faced with a difficult task, afterall!)
Your ability to stay calm under pressure (this is a tough interview question, many people would panic)
How you reflect on prior experiences and learn from them
Your comfortability moving forward from a challenging situation without letting it drag you down
Your storytelling skills (can they follow along with your answer?)
How you’ll respond to similar situations in their workplace
If your approach in high-pressure work challenges aligns with the culture of their company or their team
By providing a response to this interview question that highlights your problem-solving skills and ability to overcome challenges, the hiring manager can trust that you’ll be able to do the same in the job you’re interviewing for. That’s important because every job has difficult tasks and situations - it’s not about avoiding them, it’s about powering through them!
Note that this type of example from your career isn't something you would choose to highlight in your resume, a cover letter, or your LinkedIn profile. However, it's important to be able to talk about difficulties in interviews because you can turn it into a story about your key learnings and ability to navigate a challenging situation.
The story you choose to tell is equally as important as how you tell it.
To brainstorm ideas for what task you want to talk about, jot down all of the jobs you’ve had in your career. Then, think about what was most challenging for you in each role. Also, consider situations in each role where things did not go as planned, or a teammate fell short.
These are all good examples you can use.
After you’ve identified a few ideas of examples you could respond with, narrow down your choices by choosing the example that ultimately had a positive outcome and where you took the lead. Your goal is to show that you can take initiative when the going gets tough, and that you can succeed despite difficulties.
Here are a few examples of stories we’ve seen work well for job seekers:
A huge project was assigned at the last minute
A colleague left the company and you had to take on all of their work
You had to lead a project that you knew little about or had never done before
There were miscommunications across teams and you had to figure out how to get everyone back on track
Layoffs had to be made and you were responsible for creating the restructuring plan
Teamwork was the only way to get something done
You had to use conflict resolution skills to turn an angry customer into a happy one
Your emotional intelligence allowed you to understand what was really going on
You should always use an example of a time that really happened. Making up a story almost always backfires (trust us, we’ve seen it all!). A recruiter can tell when a candidate is making something up, and it’s also easy to forget the made-up story over time. Stick with what really happened :)
In terms of if the task was when you were in a full-time or part-time role, you can go either way. The type of employment isn't the focus here. It's also perfectly acceptable to choose an example from your current role. Your example doesn't have to be from a job from the past.
This interview question is prompting you to tell a story. Anytime you’re telling a story during an interview, use the STAR or SAR approach. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. SAR is the same except that the Situation and Task are combined into one element of your story.
The key part of your story is the result. You’ll want to highlight the positive outcome of your actions and emphasize the happy ending.
Let’s break down each section of your response, and then we’ll take a look at an example of a great answer.
Help the interviewer understand where you were working, what your role was, and what was going on at the time this all took place.
It’s helpful to think about if there was a hidden camera in the room, what would it show?
You can include:
The company you were working at
Your job title
The other people who were involved in this scenario
How the scenario came to be
Why you were assigned this task
What the ultimate goal was
What made the task difficult
Why this task was important to you, your team, or the company
After setting the stage it’s time to walk them through what you did. The hiring manager is interested in not only your actions, but also WHY you took those actions. This is where articulating your thought process comes into play.
Sharing why you made certain decisions and how you evaluated your options gives the interviewer a sense of how you prioritize, react to stress, and evaluate options.
When sharing what you did, you can include:
Your initial reaction to the situation
The various factors you considered
Other people you had to get buy-in from
The people you were leading or working with
How you weighed different options and priorities
The steps you took (in chronological order)
This is the most important part of your response to the interview question. After explaining what you did, the ultimate question the hiring manager has is “Well, what was the result of your actions?”
You’ve ideally chosen an example that had a positive outcome (this allows you to shine in the interview!). The best possible story also yields a positive impact for the employer, such as reduction in costs or increased sales. Stories where the client was ultimately satisfied are also excellent choices.
The ending of your response can include:
How the task or situation was resolved
What your manager thought
How the client felt
Ways your employer benefited
What you learned from the experience
What you would do differently in the future
By sharing what you learned from the experience, you come across as someone who is constantly improving and growing. This is a highly-valued quality in candidates.
Let’s review an example of an all-star response to the interview question “Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it.”
“I’ve had many difficult tasks throughout my career, and looking back realize they were some of the most impactful because they allowed for rapid growth.
One difficult responsibility I was challenged with was when I was a Customer Success Team Lead at TYKK. This was about two years ago. Someone on my team had upset an important customer and we were at risk of losing about two million dollars worth of business if this customer decided to leave. I was responsible for figuring out how to resolve the situation and keep them in our portfolio.
I knew I needed to act quickly. After hearing about what happened from my team member, I called the customer and acknowledged how frustrated they were with the situation. I maintained a collaborative, calm tone, and let me vent to me about the situation.
I took full blame for the problem and reiterated how this has negatively impacted them.
I then shifted the conversation to the future rather than focusing on the past. I made a few suggestions on how I could make up for the problems caused and even offered to give them a refund for the current month and the future month, as a sign of our commitment to improving things moving forward.
We ultimately found a way to fix the immediate problem and came up with a plan to prevent this from ever happening again.
The customer ended up feeling like they could trust us, and we were able to strengthen our relationship. It’s been two years since that happened and they’re still a customer at TYKK! That experience taught me the importance of going above and beyond for customers and being comfortable admitting when a mistake was made.”