Some interview questions tell you exactly what they’re looking for. Others take a little more deciphering—“What is your work style?” is one of them.
You might have gotten questions like “What is your management style?” or “What kind of work environment do you prefer?” This one belongs to the same family, but leaves things a little more up to interpretation. You might talk about your management style. And you may very well talk about what kind of environment allows you to do your best work. But there are many ways you could approach your answer.
This freedom gives you a chance to prove why you’re such a great candidate—and to make sure this is the right opportunity for you. But there are few things you need to know in order to take advantage of this question.
Why Are Interviewers Asking?
When interviewers ask about your work style, it’s usually an effort to assess whether you’ll be successful in this role, on this team, and within this company. They want to know “how well you’re going to fit into the way that they work and to the requirements of the job and how well you work with others,” says Muse career coach Lynn Berger. Do the qualities, skills, and preferences you describe set you up to meet the goals of this job and be a good addition to the existing team?
For example, if you’re interviewing for a role that requires cross-functional collaboration and teamwork, but you talk about how you’re a lone wolf who likes to work quietly and independently, that would be a red flag for the interviewer. On the other hand, if you talk about how you thrive on the energy of a group and learn from partnering with colleagues in other departments, it’ll signal that you’re a strong candidate for this role.
This question is also about “gauging self-awareness and maturity,” says Muse career coach Yolanda Owens, founder of CareerSensei Consulting. Interviewers want to make sure that “you understand yourself and what is necessary for you to feel productive and purposeful,” she says.
And here’s the thing: “It is vague on purpose,” says Muse career coach Jena Viviano. Interviewers are looking to understand your thought process and what’s most important to you. Are you going to talk about communication? Are you going to focus on your work-from-home setup? Will you tell them about how you juggle different tasks and projects? Whatever you choose to talk about will help the interviewer get to know you a little better—and potentially make it easier for them to picture you in this job!
7 Tips for Answering “What Is Your Work Style?”
As open-ended as it is, this question can catch you off guard. “If you’re not prepared, you’re going to be very flustered,” Berger says. Luckily, if you do a bit of preparation ahead of time and get a sense of what to include in your answer and how, you can stand out from the crowd.
1. Understand What Kinds of Things You Might Talk About
In many ways, “What is your work style?” is a question about your soft skills. “This question really touches on: What soft skills do you have that could make you an asset to our team?” Viviano says. So you might talk about your interpersonal skills, such as communication, emotional intelligence and empathy, dependability, leadership, motivation, or teamwork. Or you could highlight other soft skills like organization, perseverance, problem solving, time management, or work ethic.
But you’re not going to list your soft skills! You’re going to talk about how you like to do your work, how you work with others, and what kind of work environment you prefer. In the process, you’ll be demonstrating what your soft skills are, how they’ll help you do well in this role, and how they’ll help your prospective employer meet their goals.
If you’re not sure what direction you want to go in, think about it this way: “What is it that you want employers to know about you professionally that’s not on your resume?” Owens says. Ask yourself questions like:
- How do you communicate?
- What are the things that make you tick?
- What kinds of positions are you most comfortable in? Are you an individual contributor, a manager, a facilitator, or a leader?
- If you’re a manager, how do you like to manage your direct reports or lead a team?
- Are you process- and detail-oriented or a big-picture thinker?
- Do you prefer routine or do you like to be on your toes, responding to things as they come up?
- Do you like to have multiple projects going at once or do you prefer to focus on one thing at a time?
- Are you most comfortable in very structured environments or do you prefer to have a lot of autonomy?
- How do you keep yourself motivated?
- How do you stay organized and manage your time?
- How do you make sure you’re motivated and productive in a remote role?
2. Find Alignment Between the Job Description and What’s Important to You
There’s an upside to how broad this question is: “It gives you an opportunity, the interviewee, to respond how you want to respond,” Berger says. You can pick what to emphasize based on what the job calls for and what you’re looking for—ideally highlighting how those two things overlap.
So your first order of business should be to look closely at the job description and do some research on the company. “Make sure you totally understand the job and requirements,” Berger says. “See what kind of things they’re asking for [that] are in line with who you are.” Talking about those will be your best bet.
For example, if you’re applying for a project management job that requires you to interact daily with colleagues across the company while juggling multiple deadlines, you might want to talk about your collaborative work style and your approach to motivating stakeholders who don’t report to you as well as your impeccable organization skills and attention to detail.
3. But Be Honest
Yes, alignment is important. But that doesn’t mean you should just tell the interviewer what you think they want to hear. “Be authentic,” Owens says, and be honest about the things you want and need in order to do your best work. “I always tell clients, ‘If you can tell them that and they can fall in love, flaws and all, you’re off to a good start. If not, you dodged a bullet,’” Owens says. If you describe a work style you think this interviewer is looking for but doesn’t actually reflect who you are, you might get the job, but “you’re going to start off a work relationship on false pretenses.” And ultimately, neither side is likely to be happy down the line.
In that sense, preparing to answer this question can also help clarify how you feel about the job. “If you’re reading about the job and there’s no alignment, maybe it’s not the job for you,” Berger says. Or maybe it’s an indication that you need to ask some follow-up questions of your own to figure out whether or not it’s a good match.
4. Consider Who’s Asking
You might choose to focus on different aspects of your work style depending on who you’re speaking to. For example, if you’re trying to land a leadership role, you might meet with your prospective boss as well as folks you’d be managing. If the former asks about your work style, you might decide to talk about how you like to balance strategic planning with day-to-day operations and team management. But if one of your prospective reports asks, they’re probably most interested in what kind of manager you are and what it will mean for them. As Viviano points out, they might be thinking: “Are you a micromanager? Are you going to make my life harder or easier?”
5. Tell a Story to Demonstrate
This interview question is so vague, “it’s easy to give a vague answer back,” Viviano says. Your job as a candidate is to stand out and be memorable, she explains, even after a hiring manager has interviewed several candidates. And “one of the easiest ways to be memorable is to tell a story.”
So if you’re interviewing for a job that requires you to do a lot of independent work without much manager oversight, you’ll probably want to talk about your initiative, autonomy, and problem-solving skills in your answer to “What is your work style?” But the best thing you could do is give your interviewer an example of a time you took on a project, figured out how to tackle it, and tried to find your way around obstacles on your own.
6. Keep It Positive
While it can take your answer to the next level to talk about how you worked in previous jobs, “don’t badmouth a past employer,” Berger says. Instead of harping on something you didn’t like in a previous job, try to keep it positive, Owens says. Think: “What will ensure you’re able to do the best job possible? What are the elements that give you the superpowers to do that?”
7. Don’t Overthink It!
“My big advice is don’t overcomplicate it for yourself,” Viviano says. “This is not a rocket science question. You don’t need some work style mantra.” Just because you haven’t given your work style a name doesn’t mean you don’t have one. If you spend some time thinking about how you approach your job that’s similar or different to how your colleagues approach theirs, it might help you pinpoint what’s unique to your work style. And if you think about what qualities and soft skills this job requires that you have, as well as about what you need and want to thrive in a work environment, you’ll realize you definitely have something to say.
What Does an Answer Sound Like?
If you’re interviewing for a remote software engineering role, you might say:
“I’ve been working from home for seven years now and have learned a lot about what helps me stay focused, motivated, and productive. I code best with a big monitor, dim lighting, and calm but loud piano music I play on my headphones. I’ve set up my little home office to help me get in the zone. I even went ahead and painted the walls a dark blue. I check in with my team on Slack several times throughout the day, but in between, I pause my notifications and minimize all windows to avoid distractions for an hour or two at a time. One time my teammate had to be out at the last minute before a tight deadline to ship code on a crucial feature. I discovered this when I checked in one morning and by retreating into my cave and really getting in the zone for a few big chunks over the next few days, I was able to finish not only my own code on time, but also cover for them and deliver their portion of the code too.”
If you’re interviewing for a job leading a sales team and speaking to someone who might become your direct report, you might say:
“As a manager, the most important thing I can do is be there to support my team and help them support one another, and I structure my work week around that. So the first thing that goes on my weekly calendar is a one-on-one meeting with each direct report to ensure there’s dedicated time set aside to talk through any updates, obstacles, goals, and feedback in both directions. I trust them to do what they need to do throughout the week—though I make sure they know I’m always just a Slack message away if anything urgent comes up between check-ins! Then I like to make sure to schedule regular team meetings to bring everyone together to share wins and encouragement, brainstorm ideas and strategies, and learn from one another. In my last job, one of my direct reports in particular had a knack for listening to her colleagues’ stories, asking them the right questions, and helping them find strategies that worked for them. Not only did she help her teammates close deals and reach their quarterly goals, but these team meetings also helped her discover her talent for coaching other salespeople and started a series of conversations about her growth in our one-on-ones that ended in her getting promoted to a manager role."
If you’re interviewing for a marketing manager position that requires regular cross-functional collaboration, you might say:
“I tend to do my best work when I’m collaborating with colleagues and we're working together toward a common goal. I was that rare student who loved group projects and now I still get a rush of excitement when I’m planning campaigns with a team and bringing new and different voices into the fold. When I was working at XYZ Agency, I made it a habit to extend invitations to folks in different departments to join certain brainstorming and feedback sessions. Some of our most successful campaigns grew out of the ideas we generated together with coworkers in IT, HR, product, and customer success. That’s why I was so excited to learn that this role would have me working closely with the product and sales teams as well as with a talented marketing team. The other thing I find is crucial to making these collaborations successful is organization and documentation, so I’m also really big on creating one central home for all materials related to a project, including meeting notes, action items, drafts of campaign copy and visuals, and timelines.”