While at your job, you may encounter an event or interaction that leaves you frustrated or uncomfortable. When determining how to handle difficult situations at work, you have to evaluate the best path to pursue and to consider if you might face consequences for your actions.
Employers often ask a question about your approach for how to handle difficult situations at work as part of the interview process. Hiring managers, personnel officers, or search committees pose variations of this question to determine an applicant’s emotional intelligence. In addition, responses give an indication of an applicant’s initiative and communication skills, as well as their ability to prioritize and solve problems.
If asked this question in a job interview, provide a real-world example. Offer a concise answer, but give sufficient detail so they understand the reason for your response. Respond with a positive outcome that validates your communication, leadership, and technical proficiencies.
Refrain from getting dramatic whenever you have to explain how to handle difficult situations at work. Avoid dwelling on the negative aspects of the situation or any problems you may have created.
Focus on your strengths. Avoid sounding arrogant or speaking poorly of others. Only assign blame when you can provide clear reasons.
Be a Star with the STAR Technique
Whether you are responding to an interview question or documenting an event that has already happened at your present job, the STAR technique allows you to outline the behaviors, details, and responses to a difficult work situation:
- Situation: Explain the context and provide background information of the difficult situation.
- Task: Describe the tasks you chose to do to resolve this matter.
- Action (or Approach): Mention the actions you took or approaches you used.
- Result: State how the task and actions or approaches you used led to a favorable result.
8 Examples of How to Handle Difficult Situations at Work
1. Be Honest with Yourself, Your Colleagues, and Supervisors
If you lied, exaggerated , or misrepresented yourself or your performance at work, this failure to tell the truth could do great damage to you and your coworkers. Little white lies may turn into pink slips or a professional black listing of you. By failing to be honest to yourself and others, you may irreparably damage your reputation not just with your present employer, but also in your broader career network.
For example, assume that a presentation is due in two days and your boss asks about its status. Instead of saying that you have not started working on it, you lie by telling your boss that you are “halfway done.” If they then want to examine the work in progress, your lie about its status may break down most or all of the trust that your boss once had for you. Simply be honest.
2. Accept Responsibility for Your Actions and Decisions
If you make an error in judgment, do not dig a deeper hole. By admitting that you made a mistake, you lower the tension about the episode and show that you are willing to take ownership of your actions rather than deflect blame. Give the impression that you have no interest in repeating this mistake again.
For example. if you had decided to take an extra-long lunch to watch a ballgame at the bar, your peers may be waiting for you to send content for a report. The deadline passes, the project fails, or a lucrative contract your firm has is now jeopardized. In these and other situations, a foolish mistake could have a career-ending consequence if you minimize your involvement in this poor decision or assign blame where it does not belong.
3. Become a Solution Maker
Try to maintain a broad perspective and search for solutions that may involve a non-traditional approach. When others fail or take the company on the wrong path, combine a positive outlook and attitude with your best suggestions for how to move forward.
For example, when someone or something at the place you work fails to perform their tasks, think of ways to resolve the matter that avoid pettiness and finger pointing..Investigate options, research leads, and offer support in whatever ways are possible given your work obligations and the skillsets you have.
4. Understand How Negativity Poisons the Office Culture
Negative words, deeds, and emotions bring down more than the grouchy peer in the corner cubicle. When a person’s negative attitude or work performance affects others, finger pointing will increase. Others may retaliate with equally negative or passive-aggressive responses.
For example, a team member with problems away from work starts to bring a negative attitude into the office. Soon, work performance declines and their mere presence begins to frustrate you and other peers. Remain calm, motivate others, and try to bring as much positive effort and language into the culture as possible.
5. Avoid Making Another Person’s Misdeeds or Misrepresentations Worse
If someone lies, cheats, or steals, avoid the temptation to keep things quiet with the belief that keeping the peace is the safest path. Proceed carefully with any allegations and avoid confronting colleagues directly. Review personnel policies, document inappropriate activities, and carefully proofread any documents you submit regarding a matter related to another person’s unethical or illegal acts.
Obvious examples exist in nearly all professions and work environments. A subcontractor fails to live up to a contract, agreement, or promise. A coworker exaggerates profits on a quarterly statement. Whatever the circumstances, proceed cautiously and take the high ground, knowing you may also get a sucker punch below the belt.
6. Clear the Inbox and Seek a Better Balance
One of the most common scenarios in which you will have to determine how to handle difficult situations at work focuses on increased workloads that create work-life imbalance. Sometimes, the inbox fills due to reduced staffing or difficulty hiring well-qualified coworkers; in other situations, a worker assumes an overwhelming workload with hopes of winning praise from the boss or a promotion. In either case, prolonged instances of you saying “yes” may offer you no way out.
For example, assume that the company takes on a lucrative contract at a time when you hope to obtain a promotion. You devote countless hours to the task, even reading and answering emails in the middle of the night, and soon find you have lost focus because you have taken on more responsibility than you can handle. Whenever possible, ruthlessly organize your tasks, prioritize them, say “no” or “not at this time” whenever possible, and focus on urgent tasks that you can successfully complete.
7. Understand that Your Accomplishments May Unexpectedly Alienate Others
Jealousy and resentment are two common workplace emotions. You may go above and beyond, sacrifice your personal time to help others, or mentor a new employee, but find another employee becoming angry or turning against you in each of these scenarios. In some circumstances, you may even feel the need to downplay your accomplishments to keep tensions lower.
Consider the example of you receiving a raise or promotion that seems to turn a formerly close coworker against you. Maybe your peer had been in the running as well, or believed that they had the inside track. When such an event occurs, talk with your colleagues to clear the air, let them know you also wanted the job, but do not feel you have to justify the reason you were selected. Instead, thank them for being a valued member of the team and, if your new job duties permit, try to give them new areas of personal responsibility and growth.
8. Keep Quality Time with Family and Loved Ones Separate from Work
Unlike some of the earlier examples, this example does not involve anything illegal or unethical. The cheating that occurs here affects your loved ones and family. If you allow your work-life balance to get out of whack by bringing too much of your labor home, you will pay a different kind of price.
Real-world examples abound. People working through lunch, taking work home, skipping vacations and family events because of a deadline that an employee believes they alone must meet, and putting the needs of the team who assemble alongside the corporate water cooler in front of the home team are just a few scenarios one might encounter. Though most people will have high-intensity periods during which extra time devoted to work becomes necessary, when the exception becomes the rule, the worker should seek greener pastures.
The 8 examples above of how to handle difficult situations at work are not an exhaustive list. The guiding theme is that you should gather facts about the situation, consider the various perspectives of the participants involved, resist the temptation of jumping to a quick conclusion, and proceed carefully while reappraising as circumstances change.
Whether you are explaining an example during a job interview or confronting a real-world challenge, doing your research, applying the STAR technique, and seeking the best resolution possible for the situation should become second nature on your first day at the job.