How to answer "Can you tell me about a time when you had to lead a team through a difficult situation?" (with sample answers)

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

Why employers ask this

Asking about experiences where a candidate had to lead a team through a difficult situation is a common question in job interviews because it helps the employer to determine if the candidate has the necessary leadership skills to handle tough situations and motivate their team to achieve success. A candidate's ability to navigate challenging situations and lead a team effectively is often seen as crucial to the success of the team and the company as a whole.

Through this question, hiring managers can gain insight into the candidate's problem-solving skills, ability to handle high-pressure situations, ability to communicate effectively and build cohesive teams, and their overall leadership style.

How to answer the question

When answering this question, it's important to follow the STAR method - Situation, Task, Action, Result. Begin by describing the situation, task, or problem that the team was facing, make sure you include relevant details and give background information. Then, explain the actions you took to resolve the situation.

It's important to be specific about the steps you took to manage the situation, including any difficult decisions or conversations that you had to have. Focus on highlighting how you used your leadership skills to motivate and support your team to overcome the challenge. Lastly, talk about the result, highlighting the success you achieved as a team, even if it wasn't a complete success, highlight the lessons learned.

Avoid talking about a completely solo effort, instead emphasize the role that your team had in the success of the situation. It's also important to highlight the skills you used that are relevant to the position you are applying for.

It's okay if the situation you talk about isn't in a professional/school context, just ensure you avoid discussing situations related to personal issues and make sure you draw your answer to the relevant job.

Sample answers

Good Answer:

As a project manager for a software development team, we faced a critical application failure during a product launch. I immediately gathered my team and calmly explained the issue, assigned roles, and set achievable goals. I encouraged open communication and worked with each team member to find a solution that got the system up and running for users within two hours.

This answer showcases strong leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills. It demonstrates the ability to act quickly under pressure and work collaboratively to achieve a common goal.

Bad Answer:

One time, during a group project in college, one of our team members did not contribute their fair share, causing a delay in our timeline. I ended up having to complete the remaining work myself to ensure we met our deadline.

This answer is not effective because it lacks specific details about the situation, and it does not demonstrate leadership or collaboration skills. Talking negatively about a team member may also reflect poorly on the candidate.

Good Answer:

During my time as a shift manager at a coffee shop, we experienced an unexpected power outage. The staff became anxious because they didn't know what to do. I quickly located flashlights and candles and directed employees in tasks to ensure that coffee brewing continued without delays. I also ensured that we followed safety protocols and kept our customers informed.

This answer demonstrates problem-solving skills and adaptation to a difficult situation. It also highlights the candidate's ability to maintain a level head and ensure the safety of their team and customers.

Bad Answer:

There was a time when I was a team leader at a retail store, and we ran out of a popular product. My employees did not know what to do, so I had to find a quick solution and start making calls to get the item restocked.

This answer is not effective because it does not showcase leadership skills or explain the solution in detail. It is also important to note that running out of products in retail is not necessarily a difficult situation most businesses encounter and are equipped to manage.

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