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?
But this prompt is actually just a straightforward example of a behavioral interview question—a subset of interview questions 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, they want to hear how you have and would handle conflicts or disagreements with a superior.
How else might this question be asked?
“Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss” is only one of the ways an interviewer might phrase a question like this. They might also say:
- “Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with your manager.”
- “Tell me about a time you disagreed with a decision made at work.”
- “Tell me about a conflict you’ve faced at work.”
- “Tell me about a time you disagreed with how your boss handled something.”
- “How do you handle disagreements with your supervisor?”
- “Have you ever disagreed with a company or department policy? How did you deal with that?”
While all these questions are getting at the same type of situation, pay attention to how your interviewer words it. For example, a decision made at work could have been made by your boss, a coworker, or an entire team. And a conflict generally implies something a bit more serious than a disagreement or at least that you confronted the person you disagreed with in some way.
Why do interviewers ask about conflicts and disagreements 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. It also tells the interviewer about your maturity level, your emotional intelligence, your communication skills, and your willingness to speak up to 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?
Here are a few rules to follow:
- “Stick to professional issues,” says Michele Bishop, Manager of Talent Acquisition and Corporate Communications at Advanced Radiology Services, such as when you and your boss saw a project differently or disagreed on how to handle a client’s account. Steer clear of personal issues, Bishop says. This isn’t time to vent about stolen lunches, holiday party incidents, or other small, non-work-related issues that might come across as immature and unprofessional in an interview.
- Choose a conflict with a positive resolution. Talk about a conflict “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.”
- Keep your story simple: A complex story that requires 20 minutes to describe will draw the focus away from your conflict resolution skills. Pick something that’s easy to understand so your interviewer can grasp what happened quickly and your conflict resolution skills can be front and center.
What if you’ve never had a conflict with your boss?
Depending on where you are in your career or your past work environments, you may have never actually had a full-blown conflict or even disagreement with your boss. If this is the case, don’t just say “That’s never happened to me!” and end your answer there. Instead, provide your interviewer with a hypothetical situation and walk through how you would respond to the conflict just as you would for a real past experience.
How do you answer “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss”?
Luckily, there’s a straightforward formula. The STAR method is a simple yet thorough way to respond to behavioral interview questions—or any interview question that’s asking you to tell a story. 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:
Lay out the situation.
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, paint the scene well, so the interviewer can picture what happened and understand the rest of your answer.
Don’t just explain your side of the story. “If you present both sides of the argument in a positive way, you come across as level-headed and professional,” Bishop says. For example, you might say, “I understood why she said that,” or, “I could see his reasoning too.” This balance shows that you can see other people’s perspectives and that you’re not narrow-minded when it comes to working with others. For instance:
“In my job as marketing account manager, I was in charge of handling all relations with five large clients. One time, a disgruntled client approached my boss about how I handled an email marketing campaign. My boss was upset and pulled me into her office to tell me that she agreed with the client and that I had mismanaged the campaign. I disagreed with her. I’d spent weeks researching data for the campaign and putting all the pieces together, and I felt it was handled well.”
Establish your task.
Explain your responsibility or “duty” in the situation. For this question, that’s not necessarily your job duty, but what your goals were in the situation. “I look for a candidate who stands up for what’s right, even if it means having to have a difficult conversation,” Milchtein says. Conflict is a normal part of life, and recognizing how to navigate it is essential. For example, did you need to negotiate for a longer project timeline or more resources? Did you need to clear up a communication issue?
To continue the example we started with, you might say:
“I felt it was important for me to explain why I executed the campaign the way I did.”
Discuss what action you took.
Here’s where you should discuss the exact steps you followed to address the conflict. Did you set up a one-on-one meeting with your boss? If so, how did you approach the conversation? Not only are you showing how you’re willing to take ownership over a situation, but you’re also demonstrating your problem-solving skills. This gives your interviewer an inside look at how you approach conflict—so they can decide whether or not you’ll be a good fit for their team.
This could sound like:
“At first, I felt very defensive. But I took a second to collect myself and was able to remain cool and poised while I explained to my boss the process I used for the campaign and why I made certain decisions. When she heard my reasoning, my boss also calmed down. She pointed out a few things I did well, but still didn’t agree with my overall approach. It was hard feedback to hear, especially since I had taken a lot of care and time with that campaign. But after listening to what my boss had to say, I realized a few changes I could make in the future. I also knew that I had to make things right with the client.
“I called the client and apologized about the missteps I’d made. I explained the reasons for my approach, but told them about the tweaks we could make in the future. To ensure we were both on the same page, we designed a plan for the next campaign together.”
Share the results.
The outcome of the conflict is a crucial aspect of your answer. “We look for a positive resolution, where both sides came together even though they didn’t see eye to eye at the beginning,” Curley says. In this case, positive doesn’t mean you “won,” positive means that both parties came out of the situation better than before. In fact, one possible outcome might be that you came around to see things from your boss’s point of view.
Talk about how the conflict ended, what you learned, what your boss might have learned, and how the two of you approached issues going forward.
So you might say:
“In the end, I learned a few new things about email marketing campaigns. But most importantly, I learned that my boss appreciates knowing about any process changes ahead of time. And after that conversation, we had a more open relationship. She felt comfortable giving me feedback and I felt comfortable coming to her with new ideas. I continued to manage that client account for three more years.”
What shouldn’t you include in your answer?
There are a few things you should avoid in your response. To help you focus on the most important points, steer clear of:
- Unnecessary details: The interviewer doesn’t need to know all the specifics of the project you were debating over or how many people were in a meeting. Stick to the pertinent information.
- Negative opinions: Focus on the facts and the actions you took. Try to stay away from blaming or negative comments like, “My boss never liked me,” or, “He’s a stubborn person.” These types of remarks don’t make you look good.
- Blame games: You’re not trying to convince the interviewer that you were right in the situation. You’re trying to show them how well you handled the conflict. Stay away from persuading the interviewer to agree with you.
- Other people’s opinions: Skip mentioning that your coworkers sided with you or that most people didn’t care for your boss. Direct your story toward the situation, actions you took, and results.
- Memorized stories: While it’s a good idea to decide what conflict you might want to talk about before your interview—and in general to have a few versatile stories ready to go— you don’t want to sound like you’re a recording. Talk through your story a few times beforehand, but don’t worry if you miss a detail or two—the main points are most important.
“Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss” example answers
Here are more great answers to take a look at. Notice how the answers follow the STAR method and focus on a positive resolution.
An example answer about a deadline conflict
“As a finance assistant, I’m in charge of putting together reports for potential company investments. One time, my boss asked me to generate a new report on a Wednesday morning and wanted it done by Thursday at 5 PM. Due to the amount of work involved, and wanting the report to be accurate, I knew there’d be no way I could finish the report on time. Because I’m committed to high-quality work and I wasn’t sure my boss fully understood what goes into each report, I knew I needed to speak up. I decided to approach my boss about the impossible timeline.
“At her next available opening, I sat down with my boss and explained my concerns, telling her it wouldn’t be possible, even if I stayed late that night. But my boss insisted that the deadline was non-negotiable. I knew that the investment committee was meeting on Friday, so I understood the pressure my boss was under. So I decided to switch gears and ask my boss if there was anyone who could help me with the report. She found another assistant who could put in a few hours and we worked together to get the report done on time to the high standard I always deliver.
“The committee was really pleased to be able to review the report at the meeting. My boss was happy we got it done, and appreciated my extra efforts to make it happen. I felt good that I hadn’t let the quality of the report slip. And once I explained how much time and work goes into each report, my boss was careful to assign them further in advance after that.”
An example answer about a management technique you disagreed with
“My last boss was very focused on both transparency and teamwork—he wanted us to know not only what everyone was working on, but also how well or badly we were doing. During team meetings, we’d have to talk about what we’d done in the past week, but he’d also take the opportunity to give us feedback in front of the group—both good and bad. During a new team member’s first team meeting, he tore into him for a graph he’d created, telling him how hard it was to read because the colors clashed, and wondering—to the entire group—how he’d gotten hired as a data analyst. The person who’d made the graph looked really upset, and said quietly that he was colorblind. The boss immediately apologized. I had an urge to call out my manager for putting him on the spot like that—but I knew that wouldn’t be the best approach.
“At the end of the meeting, I asked if he had a few minutes to hang back, and he did. So I said something like, ‘I definitely didn’t think you would’ve said that if you knew he was colorblind, but it brings up something I wanted to share with you. I've found it really tough when we hear things like that for the first time in this meeting.’ I wanted to make it clear I wasn’t attacking this specific mistake, just sharing how I’d felt.
“He was cold at first, but I could tell he didn’t want to escalate things, so we went back to our desks. The next day, he sent an email to our team, apologizing for the incident the day before. He thanked me privately for bringing it to his attention and asked me to work with him to send out an anonymous manager feedback form so he could identify other ways to grow. Meetings were a lot less stressful after that.”