Interview Topics: Dealing with Conflict  


Dustin Levy
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October 3, 2016 1:18 pm  

Even the most talented teams or workgroups can be undone by their inability to deal properly with internal conflicts. As an interviewer, once I’ve determined that you have the technical skills to the job, I’ll be interested in understanding how you react to and deal with conflict situations. This will provide insights for how you’ll work with me as a supervisor and how you’ll work with your peers. So, as you prepare for interviews, be ready for an open-ended question such as “Tell me about a conflict you’ve experienced with a supervisor, and another you’ve experienced with a peer.”

Parts of your stories will talk about issues and outcomes, which are useful context, but the interviewer doesn’t necessarily care about those specifics, instead they care about the following details and may ask about them if you don’t share them on your own.

1. How was the issue brought to the table? Sometimes conflicts occur with one side not even being aware there was an issue, sometimes they occur with collateral damage after reaching a boiling point. Different behaviors can be expected depending on how the conflict arose.

2. What emotions were displayed by each side during the conflict? Often, you’ll begin display the emotional state you were in when talking about the event, which can be just as telling as your words.

3. Was each side satisfied with the outcome? If uncertainty exists regarding the satisfaction of either side, then the conflict probably wasn’t resolved, which will lead to additional questions by the interviewer regarding why you let that happen.

4. Did the issue repeat? A repeat of the same issue is a tell-tale sign that resolution never occurred, and both sides own some blame for that happening.

In conflict situations, people display 3 general types of behaviors: passive, aggressive, and assertive. If you weren’t the one who brought the issue to light, weren’t satisfied with the outcome, and let the issue repeat, you probably have a tendency to behave too passively. If you brought the issue to light by demonstrating anger and don’t know or care if the other side was satisfied with the outcome, you probably have a tendency toward aggression. In the “sweet spot” are assertive behaviors. If behaving assertively, you likely brought the issue to light while keeping your emotions under control, both sides were satisfied with the outcome, and the issue never repeated. Ideally this is a consistent picture when talking through the example with your boss and peer. Behaving passively with your boss, then aggressively with a peer or subordinate is not a recipe for good teaming and leadership.

When preparing your examples, give thought to the differences between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy conflict, those examples that lead to improvement, common understanding, and learning, are great to share. Conflicts that start unhealthy, but then turn healthy and lead to similar outcomes through the use of your strong interpersonal skills are also great. Stay away from unhealthy conflicts that stay unhealthy and lead to avoidance instead of a proper resolution. These examples rarely offer valuable insights that will convince a manager to hire you. You may earn sympathy, but not a job offer.

There’s a fine line to walk here (and many interviewers love to see how you handle those fine lines). It’s possible that you’ve worked with dysfunctional people, such a boss who never treated you fairly or a peer who took every opportunity to undermine you. If you fixate on these individuals when discussing workplace conflict, remember that the interviewer has never met these people and will have to make a judgement call on whether the problem was them, or if the problem is you. That uncertainty may be enough reason for an interviewer to refrain from making you an offer.

Dustin Levy, Ph.D., MBA

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October 3, 2016 3:46 pm  

Great post Dustin and Sound advice as always!

I'll add the following.

This question on: "Tell me about a conflict you’ve experienced with a supervisor, and another you’ve experienced with a peer.” is one that one that is used nearly 100% of the time in behavioral interviwing, so this is one of those questions you can absolutely prepare for. Have both situations ready.

I like number 2. Keep emotions in check and don't use an example that assoicated with high Emotion. Choose words carefully and I know it is not good to Sound rehersed, however, given how prevalant the question is, and how subject to judgement the answers to this question is, DO reherse and in my opinion, on this quetion better to Sound rehersed than not (!!). At least it Shows you're prepared for the interview and this question can Support that. Have 3 to 4 examples ready, do not get blindsided on this one. Choose your words carefully as I said, we as interviewers are listening and if we hear something off, we know how to dig deeper and we will. Because this question, does not only tell us about conflict Management skills, it tells us about your Negotiations skills, it tells us about how you related to others, it tells us how you communicate, and how you solve a Problem of People as a Primary objective (the Project will fall into a secondary objective), it tells us how much of a Team Player you are, and if you manage something on your own, or if not, what your Triggers are for escalation, and how you did that..enter all the above again.

Be clear and consise as possible.

As Dustin said, this question is very telling so treat it with the respect it deserves. We do alot of conflict Management in the corporate world and one handles conflict is really key to interview and success in corporate and beyond.

Avoid using conflict examples related to overcoming organizational behvior or political Situation unless you're well experienced and an expert interviewer, you can be easily percieved as complaining about your current or past employer or deemed a disruptor - you may have big wins internally but as Dustin noted - your interview can not understand your organzation, its make up, its emporors, its pawns (i.e. personalities and functions). Becareful here, for example. a conflict where you despcribe that you triumphed over a silo-ed organization can have These makings not to say they're not good but be-careful how These are explained to not make the innocent look guilty - its a small world.

Some say good conflict management skills benefit personal life too, but since I accept that my wife wins every conflict, with threat of bodily injury, then..well so much for me.

Just my two Cents,


Dave Jensen
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October 4, 2016 3:10 am  

Great advice Dustin! And thanks DX for the follow-on.

People here are always asking about "What's this behavioral interviewing thing all about anyway?" and here Dustin provides you with some very solid specifics, and helps us understand his reasoning and what he wants to learn from the process.

Now, take that one topic and you can see what an interview is actually like when the hiring manager or h/r spreads this same formula into half-a-dozen key aspects of your life. THAT is what behavioral interviewing is all about.


Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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Dave Walker
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October 4, 2016 10:20 pm  

Great write-up, Dustin! This is some solid-gold advice, especially the part about being prepared for this question. When I started my job search I though rehearsing for an interview meant polishing my good points. But conflicts can be messy, or as Dustin says "unhealthy," things that will never be fixed. At the time these were often on my mind, but they don't really make a representative example for interview purposes.

I was then of course asked about conflicts, and looking back I bet I almost blew it by citing an unhealthy problem that really bothered me. Thankfully my description of handling it was good enough not to sink the interview.

Lesson learned!

"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder

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October 7, 2016 6:02 pm  

Hi all

To add a bit to Dave J - I just finished part 1 of a week long management course that will durate about 6 months as part of my company's leadership academy. The course is aimed at folks like me, new line managers who are deemed the future of the company ext ext and key take away here is that behind these bahavioral interviewing approaches is the data that shows that this type of information gathering, linked to personality type testing and work sample testing have the highest propability (more than a flip of a coin) of predicting performance vs just experience, just knowledge, or just degree.

Peeling the layers of the onion as we called it is key in the interview process to determine behavior and fit to team as top priority - for behavioral interview the STAR technique was championed as a tool. Certainly we were discussing MTBI (Myerrs-Brigg) Eric etc etc.

Reality is that what is being thought is that during interviews there are many dimensions we are looking at - it's just not technical skills we want - a Big or Huge part if the story is working with others. If fact if anything the current school of thought is that one can sacrifice technical skill - we can train on that - over personal and behavioral fit as key.

So just some feed back into some of the behavioral stuff and why this is such a big part of interviews.

Any ways fun experience - topics such as setting objectives, tracking success, doing performance reviews, rewarding, giving feedback, forming teams, working in teams etc etc being covered - we all have case studies and HR mandated project to deliver on top of our current jobs - all the stuff the moderators and others are posting here such as Dustin is real and tangible advice!

Happy to share other learnings if asked - sure I've done this stuff before but nice to be reminded and nice to be a part of s formal program aimed to develop managers with tailored to current company framework and emerging or changing company culture.


Nate W.
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October 25, 2016 10:58 pm  


This is an excellent topic for discussion and you have done an excellent job with the analysis. Every interview that I have been on recently has asked behavioral questions. Still, I am not sure that my answers to these questions are satisfactory.

Several years ago, I had to deal with a sociopathic coworker who was probably fabricating their results. However, the boss didn't want to punish this person because he needed "her remarkable data." Eventually, the University fired this person but it was a living hell for the rest of the lab. This situation and many years managing labs has profoundly influenced my thinking on this topic; I can have strong feelings that I wouldn't share in an interview. So, I am confused about the best approach to answering these questions; don't know if honesty is the best approach....or more like "Do no harm."

The problems (witnessed or experienced) in dealing with conflict:

1) Avoidance is typically a key problem in handling a conflict; they don't want to deal with the mental anguish of dealing with a problematic employee.

2) They fear they will lose their job if they speak-up or try to resolve the problem, especially when dealing with a more senior manager or supervisor.

3) They don't have the authority to resolve the conflict or make personnel changes.

4) If they try to resolve the conflict with a coworker, the coworker spreads misleading or inaccurate information in an effort to get others to dislike you and/or get you fired.

5) Self-centeredness, entitlement, or narcissism of a problematic employee is usually at the heart of most work-place conflict. 5% of the US population is sociopathic and 6% of the US population is narcissistic. By nature of these behavioral problems, inflicted individuals will not change. This means there are a lot of dysfunctional employees out that can't be helped or at least not w/o a considerable amount of psychotherapy. It is not the job of employer to help these employees nor should the employer expect employees to intervene. If employees do intervene, they do so at the peril of losing their job or reputation.

6) Often behavioral dysfunctional employees with these tendencies talk down to their peers and talk up to their superiors, never accepting their responsibility in the conflict.

7) If the conflict involves a supervisor or a more senior manager with these behavioral tendencies, there is not much you can do; other than say nothing and leave.

8) Sometimes the whole culture becomes so inundated with selfish and dysfunctional behavior that management can't distinguish between the employees trying to do the right thing and those bad apples who are the cause of the problem. A perfect example is the recent Wells Fargo scandal.

I don't know if behavioral interviews and psychological surveys really get at heart of minimizing workplace conflict. Given one's tendency to avoid conflict and please the interviewer, most candidates will choose a rather benign example than more controversial and realistic examples to answer these questions: Do no harm! Many candidates may have been traumatized (or even lost their job) due to no fault of their own and tried to do the right thing in handling a workplace conflict. The last thing they want to be subjected to is a series of behavioral questions; coming across as evasive or lacking confidence. Lastly, when interviewing/networking with a group, your peers might view you with jealousy if you have an impressive background and great behavioral attributes; thus, your peers with the dysfunctional behavior might collude to block your candidacy. This might only further or enable the dysfunctional conflict. For example, a self-centered employee may block the candidacy of an impressive candidate because this individual would like to feel they can control (or manage) this new hire.....even when a fresh perspective and a candidate with a given skill set is exactly what the team needed. This is why I think hiring should not be an egalitarian group decision. Maybe behavioral questioning and psychological surveys should focus on eliminating candidates with self-centered and narcissistic traits and selecting candidates who have the traits of being reasonable and practical. We should strive for candidates that are highly grounded and quite reasonable; they make the best team members.

It takes a firm and fair leader to create a productive team w/o conflict. This manager should set the expectations at the onset of each hire and be willing to make personnel changes when a disruptive employee compromises the overall productivity of the team. Further, he must not tolerate self-centered, narcissistic, sociopathic behaviors to take root in his team and will ask individuals creating conflict with such behavioral attributes to leave. He realizes that the overall productivity of the team and accomplishing the goals of the company are far more than the needs of a given team member. He also understands certain behaviors can’t be changed and don’t expect coworkers to fix these behaviors in dysfunctional employees creating conflict. Often the best decision is to ask the dysfunctional employee to leave. Frankly, it is a cop-out for the manager to expect other team members to accommodate the employee with these behavioral problems or expect other coworkers to learn how to get along with this person. Their problems shouldn’t be the problems for the rest of team.

Since employers and managers ask these questions, then is ok to ask the hiring manager questions about how he manages conflict on his team and what are the behavioral attributes he expects from his team members?

I have tried this in an interview and it didn't go well. Given my past in dealing this sociopathic coworker, I would like to find a supervisor who I can trust and will take the appropriate action (assertive) when needed as well as being honest about the situation. A productive relationship is a two-way street. Any ideas on how to build trust with a supervisor or prospective manager?

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October 26, 2016 6:02 pm  


I don't know if behavioral interviews and psychological surveys really get at heart of minimizing workplace conflict.

Hi Nate,

The purpose of behavioral interviewing and pyschologoical Surveys is mainly to understand if you're a personality that others will want to work with, including the hiring mangager. It is also to get insight into Team fit and how you may work with others constructively. It is not about minmizing conflict, qustions about conflict is about how you manage it.

You mentioned alot of potential root causes of conflict, and one will always find conflict. If fact, a bit of conflict is healthy to have as sometimes or quiet often one can acheive a win by their Resolution, be it a new idea or new way of working or even a forged Relationship. Conflict when manageed appropriately, can be a good thing.

No hiring Manager expects to hire a super hero that will come and remove all conflict from an organization adn thus save the world- rather - they want one who will manage it with professionalism irrespective of the challenge and outcome. And that'w what is being looked for.

The only way to get at that is based on past behaviors and Performance with secondary or tertiary insights into personal work style/preferences - some of the tests can help Managers Balance out their Teams based on the Team personality/working preferences they are looking to achieve be it a bunch of DISC defined Reds, Greens, or a Balance of Reds, Blues, Greens, and Yellows. And of course, how they are usuallly used (if used)is part of a Dialog with the candidate, they are not stand alone. Reference checks help here as well to round out the Picture and to help make a decision.

I hope that makes sense?