Being asked, “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss,” in a job interview can feel like a trick. Is the interviewer just fishing for reasons to disqualify you? Are they trying to hint that your potential new boss is unusually conflict-prone? How are you supposed to answer, anyway?
Don’t panic! This prompt is actually just a straightforward example of a behavioral interview question. Behavioral questions are designed to get you talking about a past experience in order to give the interviewer a real-life look at how you approached a challenging situation—in this case, a conflict with your boss.
By describing how you handled a conflict in the past, you give the interviewer insight into how you’d handle one in the future—demonstrating your maturity level, your communication skills, and your willingness to speak up against authority figures. As we often said around my recruiting office, “Past performance is the best indicator of future performance.”
What Kind of Conflict Should You Talk About?
“Everyone occasionally disagrees with their boss,” says Chaya Milchtein, a career coach for women and LGBTQ people in the automotive industry. Depending on your years of experience, you might have several scenarios to choose from. Should you talk about when you disagreed with your manager about a business decision? Or the time your boss called you out in front of coworkers?
“Stick to professional issues,” says Michele Bishop, Manager of Talent Acquisition and Corporate Communications at Advanced Radiology Services. She suggests steering clear of personal issues, such as petty matters or social situations. These types of small, non-work-related issues come across as immature and unprofessional in an interview. It’s best to focus on a work scenario, such as when you and your boss saw a project differently or disagreed on how to handle a client’s account.
“Talk about a time when you resolved a conflict you had with your boss where you both compromised and came to a mutually beneficial resolution,” Milchtein says. “This allows you to speak with confidence about the situation, show off your conflict resolution skills, and prove that you are amenable to compromise.”
Be sure to make the story simple enough that the interviewer can grasp what’s going on quickly. A complex story that requires 20 minutes to describe will draw the focus away from your conflict resolution skills. Keep your story to a few minutes that really highlight your ability to handle obstacles.
What Should You Include in Your Answer?
There are a few elements and story points to include in your answer. Luckily, there’s a straightforward formula. The STAR method is a simple, yet thorough way to respond to behavioral interview questions. The format ensures you include all important pieces of the story—the Situation, Task, Action, and Result—in a clear and compelling way.
Here’s how you might use the STAR method for this question:
Talk about what led to the conflict between you and your boss and any necessary background information. The biggest thing is to discuss why the disagreement came up, says Jared Curley, Employment Specialist at Mary Free Bed Hospital. Whether it’s related to lack of communication or a difference of opinion, provide the full details. When you paint the scene well, the interviewer can picture what happened and it sets you up for the rest of your answer.