How to answer "Can you tell me about a time when you had to balance competing priorities?" (with sample answers)

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This post is part of our series on behavioral interview questions.

Why Employers Ask This

Employers want to know if you can effectively manage your time and prioritize tasks when faced with multiple duties. Your ability to balance different priorities shows your organizational skills and time management ability, which are critical traits that most recruiters look for in potential employees.

Additionally, employers often ask this question to determine how you handle stress and how you cope with conflicting demands. They want to understand how you remain calm while keeping focus and delivering quality work on time, even with changing priorities.

How to Answer the Question

When answering the question, it’s essential to be specific and provide details to help the interviewer understand the situation fully. Here are some tips on how to answer this critical question:

1. Provide a context:

Start by providing context about the situation, including the type of work you were doing, the project you were working on, and the team you were working with, among others. Your response should be concise but detailed enough to give substance to your statement.

2. Explain Your Priorities:

Explain in detail how you prioritize your tasks. Discuss the approach you took to managing multiple priorities at the same time. Provide information that highlights your ability to handle multiple tasks, setting expectations, and ensuring accountability to meet targets.

3. Clarify the Outcome:

Discuss the outcome of your efforts and how you made sure each priority was handled efficiently. Explain how you effectively managed your time and resources to get everything done successfully and on time.

4. Highlight your Problem-Solving Skills:

Employers also want to hear about the challenges you faced while managing multiple priorities. Highlight some of the problems you encountered, and show how you worked through them. Be sure to mention the skills you used to find lasting solutions.

By providing a detailed, thoughtful, and comprehensive response to this question, you demonstrate your ability to handle multiple priorities in a fast-paced and dynamic work environment.

Sample Answers

As a virtual assistant, I had to manage several clients from different time zones with varying deadlines. One time, two of my clients gave me urgent tasks at the same time. Instead of panicking, I took a moment to assess the tasks' importance and their deadlines. I communicated with both clients to prioritize which task needed my immediate attention and worked on the second one afterward. My ability to communicate and prioritize tasks ensured I met both deadlines and avoided any delay or stress.

As a graphic designer, I had a project that required fast turnaround time, and it coincided with other long-term projects that needed significant input. I decided to put all my effort into the urgent project at the expense of others. Unfortunately, the other projects were relegated to the back burner and were returned to the client later than expected. While I completed the urgent project on time successfully, the other clients were unhappy with the delay, costing us future business opportunities.

As a project manager, I had a team working on different aspects of a project with separate due dates. One team member's delay risked missing the project timeline, so I assigned more resources to that individual to ensure they completed their tasks on time. This action affected the remaining team's work schedule adversely. To avoid the same problem, I could have set an accountability structure with clearer timelines to ensure all team members finished their tasks on time.

As a team lead, I had to manage conflicting priorities within the team. One team member needed to leave for personal reasons, while another team member had a crucial deadline coming up. I chose to allow the first team member to leave since it was a family emergency and reallocated their tasks to the rest of the team. After assessing the workload, I communicated with the other team member and set a more extended deadline, which still fit within the overall project timeline. My decision was within the company's values, which prioritize employee wellness.

  • Good answer: The answer should follow the STAR interview technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result/Outcome), outlining the situation, the task or challenge, action taken and the outcome. It should acknowledge the importance of communication, prioritization, and problem-solving skills.
  • Bad answer: A bad answer would be one that does not follow a logical sequence, has no definitive endpoint, or does not show the interviewee's problem-solving or communication skills. Interviewees should avoid placing too much emphasis on a specific task at the expense of others, shying away from taking responsibility for their actions, or being inflexible.
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