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As I was preparing for my job interview for a clinical research data coordinator position, I came across the following question a previous candidate has shared:

How do you handle unrealistic expectations from superiors?

The question seems so tricky that I don't know what a right answer might sound like. What would an employer be looking for in a good fit? Am I supposed to say that I handle all expectations regardless of their realism? Or that I ignore unrealistic expectations? Any help or sample answers would help.

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    What did the previous candidate answer? – Solar Mike Jul 4 '19 at 17:06
  • @SolarMike: he did not provide an answer which makes it seem all the more tricky – kroner Jul 4 '19 at 17:09
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The best thing to do is answer honestly (some potential answers below). Interviewers really do want direct answers to questions - they're not trying to be tricky.

I'd have a positive reaction to responses like:

  • "I respectfully dissent when I don't agree with the expectations of my manager." Developing the objectives and expectations for your role should be a collaborative process between you and your manager.

  • "If expectations don't seem realistic, I ask for clarification to make sure I'm understanding correctly." You realize that miscommunication could be at work and actively work to ensure ideas are correctly understood.

  • "I propose alternatives, and work to execute the plan that we ultimately decide on." Your manager is not the only person who gets to weigh in on how a project or task is defined. You are willing to contribute your own ideas, but don't object if someone else's plan gets selected.

  • "I ask for help when I'm worried about meeting expectations." You're capable of noticing when you're in trouble and willing to ask for help from others. You don't let pride get in the way of good work.

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Questions like these are often asked to try and gauge the candidate's persona. There is no right or wrong way to answer them and the same answer will be received totally different by different people depending what they are looking for.

Each answer could have a potential upside and a potential down side depending on what the interviewer is looking for.

An answer such as :

I would cautiously remind my supervisor that the expectation of task X is unrealistic.

Could possibly be construed in 2 ways:

The candidate tries to wriggle himself out of pressure situations or high work loads.

Or

The candidate will avoid unnecessary pressure by highlighting potential unrealistic expectations.

It's with questions like these that the interviewer(s) will often consider what isn't being said just as much as what is being said.

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Personally, when I have been asked that I have done two things:

  1. Taken it as a red flag - in an organization is intentionally asking about how you would cope with unrealistic expectation, this would not be a new thing for them and could be a common theme internally. This would lead to added stress - which for me at least greatly decreases the joy I take from my work.
  2. Answer the question - This question almost sets yourself up for failure, but I believe a good answer would be something along these lines,

"I would handle it one of two ways depending on context, if it was about something beyond my (and by extension the team's) control, I would tactfully remind the supervisor about the limiting factors. Now, if it was about something I could control, I would quietly take the appropriate steps to either make the task meet the deadline, or changes in how I do things to meet their expectations to the best of my ability"

I hope this helps. Again, a question like this doesn't really have a "right" answer, just varying degrees of mediocre or bad ones as it sets up the candidate for failure.

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    Is it a red flag to have some less technical superiors who may not always know what is and isn't realistic? Isn't that really common? – Bernhard Barker Jul 4 '19 at 18:01
  • To a point, but to have that integrated into the interview process, to me that is a red flag. But then again, depending on the exact industry, organizational structure, it may not be. I just voiced my opinion, given my background and experience. I am open to discussion on this though. – Crosbonaught Jul 4 '19 at 19:58
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    Dukeling: There would be a difference between asking whether something can be done (and accepting the answer “realistically no”) and expecting you to do something that realistically cannot be done. – gnasher729 Jul 5 '19 at 9:48
  • I would describe it as a "red flag" only in the sense that the job seeker should look for recurring themes and maybe ask some probing questions themselves. I've been asked a very similar question while interviewing for my current job, and my response (that I'd ask questions and push back) was exactly what they wanted to hear. – Llewellyn Jul 5 '19 at 18:00
  • You probably should say for #2 - then we would have to descope the deliverables – Neuromancer Jul 7 '19 at 17:59
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If the expectation is unrealistic, then it’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is that I either convince the manager it is unrealistic (and he or she may ask for a second opinion, that’s fine), and instead we agree that I do something else that is realistic and profitable. Or I can’t convince him, I or someone else starts work, and after more or less time wasted the manager finally agrees. The first outcome is preferable.

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