I was doing well on a phone screening yesterday (who interviews on Saturday??) until I got this question:

"Describe a time when you had a conflict with a supervisor."

I think that was a great interview question. I didn't answer it well. But I've given it some more thought, and I'm ready to propose a better plan of attack for this question if I get it next time (I'll interview with a different company on Wednesday).

I wasn't ready for this question, and I gave a poorly organized answer, with a lot of "uhm" and "uh" pauses:

"We were having a lot of staff meetings to resolve a persistent problem in our department, and I came up with a really out-of-left-field suggestion, which my boss chuckled at and which his boss told me was inappropriate. That upset me, so when the meeting ended, I got together with a peer and we set up a demonstration Website for my idea. We worked on it hush-hush for a week or two, and then I presented my solution to my boss in a private meeting. We won him over, he brought us to see his boss (who had reprimanded me in the earlier staff meeting), and we won her over. We went from having a long, weekly staff meeting for this problem to having a short, monthly staff meeting. My idea changed the whole department and, I would argue, changed the whole division of the company. I guess what I learned from that was not to bring up controversial ideas in public meetings, not to take umbrage when management laughs at a new idea of mine, and to convince supervisors privately and incrementally when I'm hoping they'll make big changes in their procedures." 

The problems with my answer were:

  1. I think it took me five minutes. There were a lot of uhms and stutters which I left out.
  2. I arrived at the point, such as it was, at the end of the story. The interviewer had no idea where I was going until I got there.
  3. That was my #1 Significant Accomplishment answer, EVER. The mild disagreement with my bosses was a side-issue. That story shouldn't be about pique and protocol, it should be about my brilliant idea. I "wasted" my #1 SA answer on a subordination question. I feel as if I played ZEPHYR in Scrabble without any double word scores, and now I won't get that Z back.

Next time, I'll have an answer that shows I can respectfully, professionally, and effectively resolve conflicts with my superiors, through my actions, for the betterment of the company and our goals.

  1. I'll pick an example where the disagreement/ conflict with my boss is a central part of the story. I won't blow my great accomplishment answer again.
  2. I'll pick an example where the disagreement/ conflict got resolved, not just smoothed over. I won't tell a story ending with "...but I realized she was the boss, so I kept my mouth shut and did it her way, with my best effort."
  3. I'll pick an example where MY ACTIONS were at least 51% of that resolution. I won't tell a story where my boss made a solid argument, and I realized that I was wrong. Sure, a story like that shows I'm a good subordinate, but it's also a story of my boss saving me from my mistake. 

That's my plan for next time. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

DHumble's picture

when you say "That upset me, so when the meeting ended, I got together with a peer and we set up a demonstration Website for my idea. We worked on it hush-hush for a week or two, and then I presented my solution to my boss in a private meeting." it makes other people feel that your sneaky, that you stole a week or two that could have been used on other work, and that you like to show up your bosses boss.


afmoffa's picture

I agree on all points. My answer was C-, and that only if the person interviewing me was feeling charitable. Thank you for the feedback. May I ask what you think of my plan going forward?

DHumble's picture

The story should show real conflict that matters, show how you resolved the conflict, not include any reference to anything that is not totally professional. It’s easier for me to show by example here, but I wouldn’t take this story and proffer it as your own because it would come across to even the most unseasoned interviewer as disingenuous unless you have the same exact story in your career.
“I was managing a project to consolidate a large database environment into a more manageable and efficient model. There were over 800 database servers with multiple replicas of databases across multiple international regions that were used by different lines of business. As this effort was not only an effort to reduce various costs such as data center and wan traffic costs but also an effort to simultaneously increase the productivity of not only the IT teams but also of the supported business units. I wanted to use a software product to analyze the databases and their usage so that we could very quickly determine which replicas of the various databases to collapse into replicas in other regions. The project sponsors were unwilling to buy the product for all of the servers as the increased capital expenditure would have a serious impact on budget. After trying to work out a way to analyze all of the databases in the time allotted the team was running up against a brick wall. The real conflict was arising from our concept that we wanted to reduce the number of database replicas. But as I was looking over the project documentation I realized that the purpose was to reduce COSTS and increase EFFECTIVE use of the resources. I asked the team why we were trying to knock out replicas when what we really wanted was to knock out servers. We sort of stared at each other in stunned silence for a bit, and then I elaborated. We didn’t have to analyze ALL of the servers at once. We could use the product on a limited number of servers, get the database on those servers migrated or opt to keep that server, and then remove the analysis tool from that server so that it could be used on another one. We agreed that this was a viable plan, but I had to go back to my project sponsors and ask for the same product that they had already said no to. Naturally as soon as I mentioned that I wanted that product they started to talk about costs and say that it just couldn’t be done. I was able to show that we only needed a few licenses and that the cost would in fact be recovered in the first hundred or so servers that we analyzed. This proved to be a valuable lesson for not only the project team, but also for the sponsors. We learned to work well with each other, manage conflicting requirements, and bring in exceptional results. At project close we were 2 months early and over $300,000 under budget.”
The point in the example is that there was real conflict, it was resolved, everybody learned something, AND the result was better than had been hoped for before the conflict. The story shows an ability to turn conflict into a competitive advantage. AT NO TIME IS ANYTHING NEGATIVE SAID ABOUT ANYBODY. That’s important because if you have something negative to say about your past teams, companies, co-workers, or managers, what exactly are you going to say about me? Building a team that includes the sponsors is important because it shows real world team building. And of course results are results. There why we do things. Right? Yes I’m a high D. But even a high D can build a team and work to get everyone to feel all warm inside.  
This is just one answer to the question, and I urge you to compose your own SET of answers to this and the other common behavioral questions. At a minimum, one for each of the DISC types, and one for TEAM people, one for TASK people, one for ENERGETIC people, and one for RESERVED people. You can’t always know right off if your interviewer is a D, I, S, or C, but you can usually guess at the other TEAM, TASK, RESERVED, or ENERGETIC with a good degree of certainty. (yes I have strong C characteristics too). This way you can effectively tell a story that will not only be heard the right way by your audience, but also touch them and build a relationship.
Now about flubbing interviews. Well, it happens, so what. Do better next time. If you worry about flubbing the interview that will come across. It is far better to answer a question wrong, but seem to be at ease and build a relationship with the interviewer. I couldn’t possibly begin to count the number of times I’ve answered a question wrong. On occasion with real business impact. Just man up, own the mistake, fix what can be fixed now with what you have now, and move on. I’ve only seen someone get in serious trouble for a mistake when they tried to cover it up and were all upset before anyone else was. If you want to own success you have to own failure first. All of my success has been preceded by failure. I don’t let it get to me. I do notice it, frequently apologize, and fix things with vigor. I always learn from my mistakes, and I’m also willing to own mistakes that my team makes. I am however never willing to feel bad enough to let it stop me. (an asset of the high D). 
So you’ve owned the mistake, and you are fixing it (by asking questions and planning). Bravo to you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Keep it up. If you think about the interviewing process, there are 5 good applicants for each job. That means that one of the 5 will presumably get the job. Or you have a one in five chance of turning a good interview into a job. Now it takes practice to be able to interview well, so you first so many interviews will not be good. Continuous improvement will, however, win. YOU are making the best step possible towards that goal by being introspective and looking for what could be done better. I will say that you should pick one thing and only one thing to fix at a time. Usually the best thing to fix is NOT the answers to questions, but the first few minutes of the interview. When I was a hiring manager I knew before the first real question if someone was a ‘no thank you’ or a possibility. All that junk about what to wear, how to shake hands, smiling, raising eyebrows isn’t junk if you can pull it off with grace and ease. It’s also more important to me that an interviewee can LEARN as opposed to be right. As a matter of fact when I do technical interviews I pick several areas and begin asking deeper and deeper questions until I hear the words “I don’t know.” Then I ask them to guess. I have told someone to just guess three times to the same question and had them refuse to. Needless to say they FAILED the interview. I was later questioned by very senior management because a higher-up had committed to hire the person.  My answer was “I asked technical questions until they didn’t know the answer. Then I asked them to guess. They refused. What they won’t try to do lands on my desk.” The answer was rather direct, but left no feeling that it was anything but professional.
To be successful at ANY behavioral question, place yourself on the other side of the table. What does the interviewer want? Why are they asking the question? HOW CAN I HELP THEM TO HELP ME?