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I have around 15 years working experience already so I'm not a workplace newbie, but I've never actually "prepared" for an interview or role-played answers or anything like that (I just turn up and talk!). I've had my share of success and failure with that 'technique' - as you can imagine - so I am working on proper interview technique in the hope of improving. I am also looking to move on to a more senior level role (in a different company) due to 2 reasons - I'm now "stagnating" here, and I'm not sure about the long term viability of the job (layoffs etc) due to signals I'm picking up.

I am curious about how to handle interview questions like: (I made these up based on examples on websites so there may be a better way that a real interviewer would word them...)

  • "Can you describe a situation where you had to deal with a difficult person in another team?"
  • "Deliverable X has to go to the customer tomorrow, but it will still take 3 days based on your estimates -- what do you do?"
  • "What's a time you exhibited leadership?"

My problem is that out of those 15 years experience, my most recent (and largest amount of time / most senior / most relevant - edited to add: 8 years here) workplace is sort of "extreme" in that I can think of examples of those situations/scenarios but have been 'conditioned' into responses that I don't think are typical or are what interviewers are looking for.

For example...

  • In the 1st question (difficult people in other teams) we have a very "conflict averse" culture on the whole (which isn't the way I am naturally) and any 'difficult behaviour' with people in other teams is handled - if you can call it that - by passive aggressive behaviour and/or escalating it to their manager... Due to this I've mostly been on the "receiving" end (manager speaking to me because of my perceived being difficult towards others) rather than handling it. I am quite comfortable with conflict myself and don't really see "difficult people" other than I have to figure out this person's motivations and then make it work for them as well as for me. Maybe I'm lucky but I don't have too many "difficulties" with people as a result!

  • With the 2nd question about the customer wanting Deliverable X tomorrow but it will take 3 days -- the response in my workplace is to somehow find a way to make it work, even if that takes an all-nighter or two, you have to call in favours "off the record" from people in other teams, cut corners in an undetectable way (that still produces the results). I know that isn't the "right" answer to that interview question and was struggling to think what was the right answer! I asked a friend (not at this company) who said a normal response would be more like -- "figure out what we can complete by tomorrow and if we can agree with the client/product owner/sales person to deliver that "minimum" product, explain what the problem is and commit to follow up later with the "full" product in 3 days time."

  • Thinking about "exhibiting leadership" I have a limited amount of that in my normal role, but was faced with a situation last year where due to a combination of circumstances my manager, and her manager (so the 2 levels of management above me) were unexpectedly out of the workplace for a sustained period and I had to pick up a lot of responsibilities that weren't really my place. I didn't have anyone to ask (I was the 'senior' in the team but not their manager) and had to make it up as I went along. I didn't have a 'strategy' or anything like that, I was really just surviving day to day.

  • 'Difficult/demanding customers' - my experiences with customers mostly seem mundane compared to the time I was 16 and the shop I worked in at the time was "held up" by an armed robber and I had to defuse that situation myself! I don't think an interviewer wants to hear about that though.

Question: How should I respond to interview questions similar to the above, when I don't have 'sane' recent experiences to draw on? I have come across the situations, but my examples relate to more extreme experiences.

I also want to get across that I'm more than capable of dealing with (what I perceive as) "mundane" situations compared to experiences I have already.

NB: I looked at this question ('Spinning' a dysfunctional workplace) from the suggested duplicates but I don't think it's a duplicate because I'm asking how to come up with sensible answers to questions like "dealing with difficult people", rather than presenting the "dysfunctional" experiences in a positive light.

Added a country tag but I don't think this is country specific.

  • Hi new user. To be honest the example questions you gave are simply not common. – Fattie Feb 14 at 22:54
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Talk about how you think those situations should be handled rather than how they were handled at your last/current position. You're already aware that the corporate culture there might be as little off, and only another company with a similar culture would find that appealing. Save the horror stories for future coffee breaks.

I'm not going to go into details, as I think each scenario you list should be dealt with as separate questions here (and most likely, have already been answered).

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I find this question fairly broad, but I'm going to try and give some input.

The interviewer will not need to hear a perfect solution. They are looking to get a feel for your approach in dealing with challenging situations. As such, I would not recommend memorizing answers.

Rather, demonstrate your approach and personality. Are you the type that will look to a team for solutions? How do you go about assessing the situation - are you very analytical? Can you keep it together in times of stress?

Regarding the questions:

When faced with an unspecific question, make it specific and answer it rather than asking for a lot of clarifications. That will come across better, as you're more certain of what you're talking about. If that's not what they wanted to hear, they will let you know, or ask follow up questions.

Be aware of standard approaches. For example the "3 days" scenario immediately reminds me of the "Time, quality, cost - pick any 2" adage. I would go along those lines.

Generally, be as authentic as possible, but only say things you want the interviewer to hear. That means: positive things. Don't mention negative approaches if you don't want hem associated with you or followed up on. I've noticed, for example, in your answer about difficult people you have a good answer - understanding motivations and working out solutions - but mixed with "a passive aggressive approach" in the company. The latter really shouldn't be mentioned.

Leadership: don't focus on how you had no plan. Focus on how you mastered the situation ( I'm assuming you didn't end up blowing it ;) ). Saying "I had no plan and muddled through" may be honest but isn't the same as "I unexpectedly ended up in a situation of authority and handled it until management returned".

Just be aware that you want to make a positive impression. So say positive things.

With regards to exact answers, I'm afraid that would be too detailed - and not help much, as I've said - memorizing those would not get you far.

Good luck!

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