How to Answer the 'Difficult Team Member' Interview Question

Published: May 31, 2018

 Interviewing       Job Search       Workplace Issues       

One of the more common behavioral interview questions is “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a coworker and how you dealt with it.” A similar question is “Tell me about a time you were on a team and team member wasn’t pulling his or her weight and how you addressed the situation.” While these questions are slightly different, they’re both looking for the same thing: how you work in teams and how you deal with conflict. 

That said, the first thing you need to know about answering either of these questions is your interviewer will severely penalize you if you respond with: “I’ve never had a conflict with a coworker or team member.” Conflicts arise every day in the workplace, employers know this, and so they need to know that you’ll be able to resolve them. 

Instead, a good way to begin is to describe an assignment you were on (extra points if it’s an assignment that will showcase some other skill of yours) and then talk about a time where you and a colleague differed on your approach to the assignment. The meat of your answer will come next: explaining how you were able to create agreement out of conflict. Note that you should not end your answer with you “winning.” You want to remember to mainly stress the actions you took to reach a compromise with your coworker. 

Also, it’s important to remember that your interviewer is trying to find out how you work with others—how you work on team, which is so essential to just about any job these days. So, definitely do not focus on what your coworker did wrong or didn’t do but instead on what you did to get the assignment back on track and complete it. Your answer might include holding meetings to address a procrastinating coworker or agreeing to a compromise on a particular issue where viewpoints differed. The point is you need to get across that you took initiative to find a solution.

Now, if you're asked specifically about dealing with a team member who wasn’t pulling their weight, you could give an answer that looks something like this:

“There was one assignment where this happened, and what I did first was meet with my coworker in private. I explained my concerns to him about the quality of his work, and then I asked if he know what the cause of the problem was. It turned out that my coworker said that he knew his work hadn’t been up to par and was afraid to address the issue with me and the rest of the team. He said that he felt overwhelmed by the project and that this was probably in part because he’d just become a father—he was only getting three hours of sleep a night. 

“So, once that was out in the open, I reviewed the project with my coworker and asked him to identify any problem areas that he needed help with. I also allowed him to work a flexible schedule that better fit with his new role as a father. Then I revisited the project with the entire team to ensure that all aspects of my agreement with my coworker were understood, the deadlines were realistic, and work duties were fairly allotted among the staff. In the end, the project was completed on time, and the ‘problem coworker’ prospered as a result of the more open lines of communication and the adjustment of his work schedule.”

Of course, this is just an example; you have to find your own, personal example and then start to outline how you’d tell that story in interviews. Lastly, if you're worried that you might not be able to come up with a good example, we think you’ll be surprised at how many conflicts you've faced and resolved, once you start to think about them.

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