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? How are you supposed to answer, anyway?
Don’t panic! This prompt is actually just a straightforward example of a behavioral interview question. Behavioral questions are 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, a conflict 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—demonstrating your maturity level, your communication skills, and your willingness to speak up against 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?
“Stick to professional issues,” says Michele Bishop, Manager of Talent Acquisition and Corporate Communications at Advanced Radiology Services. She suggests steering clear of personal issues, such as petty matters or social situations. These types of small, non-work-related issues come across as immature and unprofessional in an interview. It’s best to focus on a work scenario, such as when you and your boss saw a project differently or disagreed on how to handle a client’s account.
“Talk about a time when you resolved a conflict you had with your boss 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.”
Be sure to make the story simple enough that the interviewer can grasp what’s going on quickly. A complex story that requires 20 minutes to describe will draw the focus away from your conflict resolution skills. Keep your story to a few minutes that really highlight your ability to handle obstacles.
What Should You Include in Your Answer?
There are a few elements and story points to include in your answer. Luckily, there’s a straightforward formula. The STAR method is a simple, yet thorough way to respond to behavioral interview questions. 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:
Talk about what led to the conflict between you and your boss and any necessary background information. 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, provide the full details. When you paint the scene well, the interviewer can picture what happened and it sets you up for the rest of your answer.
Describing the scenario isn’t just about explaining your side of the story. You should also include the way your boss saw the problem, Bishop says. “If you present both sides of the argument in a positive way, you come across as level-headed and professional.” 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. You’re not saying, “It’s my way or no way.”
Example: “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 the campaign was handled well.”
Explain your responsibility or “duty” 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?
Example: “I felt it was important for me to explain why I executed the campaign the way I did. I knew I had to advocate for myself.”
Here’s where you should discuss the exact steps you took to address the issue. 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.
Example: “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 corrections 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.”
A crucial element of your answer involves the outcome of the situation. “We look for a positive resolution, where both sides came together even though they didn’t see eye to eye at the beginning,” explains Curley. In this case, positive doesn’t mean you “won,” positive means that both parties came out of the situation better than before. Provide information such as how the conflict ended and what good things happened after the situation was resolved. Talk about what you learned, what your boss might have learned, and how the two of you approached issues going forward.
Example: “In the end, I learned a few new things about email marketing campaigns. But most importantly, I learned that my boss appreciates direct communication, and that our professional relationship worked better if I checked in with her throughout a project.
My boss respected what I had to say, even though she didn’t agree with it. She appreciated my apology and resolution with the client. And after that conversation, we had a more open relationship. She felt comfortable giving me feedback and I felt comfortable speaking up. 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 parts.
- 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.
- Pitting one side against another: 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. In fact, one possible outcome of the situation might be that you came around to see things from your boss’s point of view. When you show that you learned something, you demonstrate that you’re open-minded and flexible.
- 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.
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 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.
Putting It All Together
Here’s another great answer to the prompt, “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss.” Notice how the answers follow the STAR method and focus on a positive resolution.
In my job as a finance assistant, I was in charge of putting together reports for potential company investments. It was important to get the details and numbers right so that leaders had the best information to make a decision.
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 level 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. She was firm that the report would be completed by Thursday at 5 PM. Since I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the quality of the report, I said that it wouldn’t be possible, even if I stayed late that night. My boss insisted that the deadline was non-negotiable. So I decided to ask my boss if there was anyone who could help me with the report. After thinking about it, my boss found another assistant who could put in a few hours. While I still had to work long hours, I knew that the investment committee was meeting on Friday, so I understood the pressure my boss was under. I agreed to partner with the other assistant to get the report done on time to the high standard I always deliver.
While it was a tight timeline, we got the report done, and the committee was really pleased to review it 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. It was a good experience of being a team player but also knowing when and how to ask for help. And once I explained how much time and work goes into each report, my boss was careful to assign them further in advance after this.
It’s a good idea to decide what conflict you might want to talk about before your interview. This way, you can practice your answer ahead of time and even jot down a few story details to review before the interview starts. In general, having a few versatile stories ready to go for various behavioral questions can help you give great answers even when interview jitters set in.
But keep in mind that you don’t want your answer to sound rehearsed. While talking through it a couple of times beforehand can be helpful, be sure you don’t sound like you’re a recording. Don’t worry if you miss a detail or two—the main points are most important. And following the STAR method ensures you hit the key elements of the story.
Above all, remember to be genuine in any interview. By showing your true self, the interviewer can gauge not only your conflict resolution skills, but also whether or not you’ll be a good fit for their company.