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How to Answer Questions About Workplace Conflict

Written By Rachelle Enns on September 14th, 2021

How to Answer Questions About Workplace Conflict


In this guide, Mock Questions discusses how to approach interview questions related to conflicts in the workplace. We discuss the importance of preparing responses that showcase your ability to focus on problem-solving and finding resolutions.




Why Interviewers Ask About Conflict



Conflict is described as a situation where there is a disagreement, fight, or argument, typically between two or more individuals. Interviewers ask about your approach to handling workplace conflict so they can:



  • Assess your level of emotional intelligence (EQ)

  • Receive assurance that you are a level-headed individual

  • Determine if your approach is a healthy fit for their company and team

  • Gain examples of your communication style when difficult situations arise

  • See evidence of your ability to resolve conflict rather than escalate the issue



Different Types of Workplace Conflict Explained



An online article published by Harvard Law School explains that workplace-related conflict can be contained under three categories:




  1. Task Conflict

  2. Relationship Conflict

  3. Value Conflict



Task conflict can include workplace disagreements around assignments, expectations, responsibilities, and resources.



Relationship conflict can include disagreements stemming from differences in personalities, points of view, characteristics, and other traits.



Value conflict can include workplace disagreements around assignments, expectations, responsibilities, and resources.



Common Conflict-Related Interview Questions



An interviewer might ask various questions related to all categories of conflict: Task, Relationship, and Value. Some questions to prepare for include:




  • How do you deal with conflict?

  • Talk about a time you faced an angry client or customer.

  • How often do you argue with your colleagues?

  • When you disagree with your boss, what do you do?

  • Talk about a time you faced a conflict in a team setting.

  • How do you work with those who have different values than you?

  • Discuss a time when you were asked to complete an unpleasant task.



Healthy Approaches to Workplace Conflict



The interviewer wants to know that you can navigate conflict-related situations with professionalism. It's essential to express that you have a range of healthy approaches for managing workplace conflict and reaching favorable resolutions. When answering interview questions about conflict, your response should align with professional best practices.



Listen Intently. When you genuinely listen to others, you are more likely to gain a full scope of understanding, leading to fewer misunderstandings and conflicts.



Be Objective. Never assume that you are right. Yes, there is always a possibility that you are right. On the flip side, there is always a possibility that you're mistaken. Before assuming your opinion is right, ask yourself if there is room to explore the situation and discover an alternate viewpoint.



Avoid Placing Blame. Refrain from placing blame on others when a conflict arises. Blaming others creates a defensive bubble around anyone involved, which makes conflict-resolution incredibly difficult.



Other simple ways to avoid conflict in the workplace include:




  • Encouraging other peoples' points of view

  • Acknowledging when someone has a good idea

  • Leaving petty issues at the door



Framework for Responding to Questions About Conflict



Most interview questions related to conflict are behavioral or situational-based. The interviewer will often ask you to 'talk about a time when.' Questions like these require a real-life example that proves your ability to handle conflict the right way.



You can concisely deliver these real-life stories by learning the STAR answer method. STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result.



Situation: Set the stage with the background information the interviewer needs to make sense of your story.



Task: Continuing to set the stage, give the interviewer an idea of your role and responsibilities in this story.



Action: Next, offer a detailed description of the steps you took to resolve the situation you described.



Result: Last, talk about the specific outcomes that resulted from your actions.



Even if the interviewer's question doesn't require a story-based response, it's typically a good idea to provide a real-life example. Rather than only telling the interviewer that you can handle workplace conflict with poise and wisdom, show evidence of your abilities through storytelling.



If you would like to learn more about STAR and storytelling in a job interview, MockQuestions has two comprehensive guides for you:



How to Answer: Behavioral Interview Questions



Master Behavioral-Based Interviews Using the STAR Method



Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About Workplace Conflict



Avoid talking about situations where you initiated the conflict.



You don't want to make it seem like you enjoy stirring up drama. Of course, if the interviewer asks you to describe a time when you initiated a workplace conflict, you should answer the question directly.



Avoid examples where the resolution was not a clear win.



Stories with so-so results are not memorable. When providing your story-based (STAR) example, think of situations where the resolution positively impacted you, your co-workers, and your employer.



Avoid examples where the company suffered greatly from the conflict.



When responding, you want the interviewer to feel good about how you approached the conflict and came to a resolution. By discussing situations where your employer suffered consequences from the conflict, your interviewer will likely feel uneasy.



Avoid ending your example on a negative note.



If your response ends in a negative tone, your interviewer will not feel as confident in your ability to manage workplace conflict constructively. By using the STAR method to deliver your story-based response, your answer should naturally end on a position note (the 'Result’).



Avoid speaking negatively of others.



This point goes for all interview responses, no matter the question. Speaking negatively about other people or employers past or present looks bad. Keep your answers neutral to show the interviewer that you are not the type of individual who often sees themselves as the victim of their circumstances.



Answer Examples to 3 Common Conflict-Related Questions



Question #1: Discuss a time when you disagreed with your boss. How did you find common ground?



Answer Advice: Finding common ground with your boss, despite disagreeing with them, shows the interviewer that your desire to collaborate is stronger than your need to be correct. Overcoming disagreements with your boss also highlights your ability to problem-solve while facing a difference of opinion.



Even though you may have a great relationship with your boss, there might be times where you don't see eye to eye. Think of a conflict or disagreement you had with your boss where you responded professionally and worked toward a solution.



When asked a 'Discuss a time when...' question, it's important to remember that the interviewer is looking for a specific story-based example that highlights your behavior in challenging situations. Using the STAR interview method (an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result), you can form an easy-to-follow, engaging story-based response.



Answer Example: "(Situation) Last year, my Sales Director and I disagreed on the pending termination of one of my sales team members. (Task) As a Sales Manager, my philosophy is to ensure that I have trained and coached my team members to the best of my ability before I ever consider terminating them. (Action) I expressed my desire to the Sales Director to spend additional time training this team member. I mentioned that it would be more expensive to replace this person than invest in additional training. The Sales Director finally agreed that if the team member missed their targets for another 30 days, we would move forward with termination. After coming to a middle ground, I created a plan to spend five additional hours per week training this team member for three weeks. (Result) Remarkably, his performance improved by over 40%! This sales rep is still with us and often lands on the company's 'Top 10' list for sales performance. Despite having a difference of opinion, I chose to present my argument with facts rather than emotion. I believe this approach is why the Sales Director agreed to come to a compromise."



Question #2: Walk me through a time when you helped resolve a workplace conflict between others.



Answer Advice: The interviewer wants to know about your ability to handle conflict when placed in a mediator role. Show the interviewer that you are thoughtful in challenging conditions and can be the voice of reason for others when needed.



When responding to a behavioral or scenario-based question like this, it's best to give a specific story-based example rather than responding with a generalization. You can form your response using the STAR framework, an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result.



Suppose you don't have an example of when you helped resolve a workplace conflict between others. In that case, you can discuss the approach you would take to mediating the situation in a hypothetical way.



Answer Example: "I am a peacekeeper, so it comes naturally to me to help mediate workplace conflict between others. (Situation) While working at Company XYZ, there was a time when two of our sales team members were continually bickering. The situation started in jest and good spirits but quickly deteriorated as one felt the other was attempting to railroad the other persons' sales. It made working with them, or even near them, an unpleasant experience. (Task) As the Sales Lead, I felt it was time to speak with them about the tension they were creating for others. (Action) First, I spoke to them individually to get to the root of what was bothering each individual. By hearing each of their sides without the other around, I was more prepared to address the issue when the three of us sat down together. Next, I pulled the three of us together into a private boardroom. I acted as a mediator and got them talking about what was bothering them or where the disconnect was coming from. (Result) I was able to coach them into a meaningful conversation and the situation improved dramatically. They continued to be competitive with each other; however, more constructively."



Question #3: Talk about a time you faced a conflict in the workplace and reacted constructively.



Answer Advice: It can be very challenging to face a conflict and react calmly and professionally. Fight or flight; it's human nature to become defensive in the face of conflict or to 'sweep it under the rug' pretending the situation doesn't exist. The interviewer would like evidence that you are a professional who can face conflict in the workplace and maintain a level of professionalism, allowing you to find a solution without worsening or ignoring the situation.



Behavioral-based interview questions that begin with 'Talk me about a time...' are best answered using the STAR method. STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Organizing your response using this framework will ensure that you provide the interviewer with the right amount of information and detail to form a compelling answer.



Avoid examples where you were the one that caused the conflict. Focus the bulk of your response on how you approached a solution rather than dwelling on the problem. Assure the interviewer that you are a well-equipped professional to handle conflict and promptly problem-solve.



Answer Example: "(Situation & Task) While working for Restaurant Franchise XYZ, I was in charge of the marketing and launch of our new summer menu. I hired a freelance photographer to create images for our new menu launch. This photographer had experience with food staging and food photography. She came with strong references and had a stunning portfolio of work. She was a busy freelancer, but I wasn't expecting that she would continually postpone our shoot days due to other projects running behind. (Action) After the photographer postponed our shoot date for the third time, I directly addressed the situation with her. I let her know that I was disappointed in her lack of commitment to my project. If our project was too much, she should have declined the offer rather than agree to do the work. The photographer became defensive and explained that she was in high demand and did not deserve criticism. She said that her work was art and could not be delivered on-demand. I could see that this person was highly emotional and attached to her work, so I stepped back a bit to not worsen the situation. I suggested that we start fresh and write up a new contract with a new non-negotiable timeline. (Result) We scheduled regular project update meetings from that day, and she delivered the work on time. Once the project was complete, the photographer apologized for being unreliable initially and said thank you for the second chance. I learned from the situation that it's often better to be kind than to be right. I could have fired the freelancer. I also could have told her, unfiltered, how I felt about her professionalism. However, that would have just exacerbated the situation and would have forced me to find someone new, costing me added time and costing the company extra resources."



In Conclusion



Conflict-related interview questions such as 'Talk about a time when you disagreed with your boss' are challenging to answer. Forming a proper response that showcases your ability to approach conflict with a professional mindset takes practice and self-awareness. It's important to remember that although you can't always avoid conflict, you can always deal with it professionally.



When discussing previous workplace conflict, remember to highlight that you are not the type to cause conflict; however, you are the type to advocate for a resolution. Be sure to maintain a positive tone, and show a willingness to cooperate with your leadership team and co-workers.



If you are looking for more interview questions related to conflict, MockQuestions has a set of 15 conflict-related interview questions complete with answer advice and answer examples.