Q: I was surprised when one of the interviewers asked me how I handled stressful situations at work. I tried to tell her that I didn’t really feel stress on the job, but she didn’t buy it. I mumbled something about a time when our main suppliers had a major supply line issue, but the answer didn’t really go anywhere. How should I have approached this answer? (EF, email ).
A: A definition of stress applicable to a workplace scenario might be “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”
Traditionally, candidates were inclined to protect themselves in a job interview. Revealing that they suffered from stress, or found parts of the role demanding, was something they tended to avoid lest they be seen as incapable of dealing with the requirements of the position.
Interviews are changing and nowadays it is perfectly acceptable to give answers that show you in difficult scenarios. There is no harm whatsoever in finding yourself in stressful situations. You are no less a candidate just because there are times when, swan-like, your above-the-line placidity contrasts dramatically with the frantic paddling underneath.
For an answer like this, I would describe parts of the role that lend themselves to being stressful. Tight deadlines and intricate work can be challenging. Working in ad-hoc teams drawn from different departments can test the best of us. Look at your work and identify those areas where things aren’t always straightforward.
Then find a particular example. Go narrow, not broad. Don’t say: “there were many times when we had to…” Go in deeper and say: “I can tell you about one particular time…”
Relay how you handle stress by telling one good story. If it’s about a deadline, give the exact details of the deadline. If it’s about intricate work, paint the picture of the work for them so they can see how painstaking it was. If it’s about being effective across multiple teams, name the teams and outline the complexities involved in bringing them together.
Show the difficulty. Tell them what you did to tackle it, focusing particularly on how you handled the stress by, say, calling additional meetings, bringing new people on board or setting mini deadlines that successfully led you through to the final one.
Articulate the difficulty; how you handled it; and how it all went: “We hit the deadline”; “the teams worked well together”; “we turned out a great product despite the intricacy”.
Tell them what you learned from it: “I learned that good planning / teamwork / communications can reduce the stress involved”.
Show how all that renders you a great candidate for this role: “you need someone in this position who can take steps to minimise stress and to keep their eye on the ball no matter what the situation”.
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