How to answer "Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision?" (with sample answers)

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

Why employers ask this

Employers ask this question to better understand how you think, approach decision-making, and handle pressure in challenging situations. Employers want to know if you're able to make tough decisions in a professional environment, and if you're able to remain calm and composed when under pressure. Additionally, employers want to learn about the reasoning you take when making a difficult decision and if you consider multiple factors prior to making a call. Your answer to the question offers insights into your problem-solving skills, your ability to anticipate problems, and your judgment.

How to answer the question

  1. Think about your past difficult decisions: Reflect on past experiences when you had to make a difficult decision, and don't be afraid to talk about it if you've made a mistake. The most important aspect of this question is to explain the reasoning behind your decision making. Be sure to provide convincing answers and offer examples of your logic.
  2. Describe the situation: Explain the context of the problem you had to solve and what was at stake. Start with the background and describe the specifics of the situation so that the interviewer can understand the context of the decision you had to make.
  3. Explain your reasoning: Your interviewer is interested in learning how you approached the situation, your thought process, and how you balanced the options available. Provide an organized description of how you arrived at your decision, what options you considered, and any tradeoffs you made along the way. Be sure to elaborate and provide enough detail so that the interviewer has a clear picture of your decision-making process.
  4. Results of your decision: In the closing part of your response, mention the results of your decision. Whether it was a positive or negative outcome, you can show that you have learned from the experience. Explain what you would do differently or the same if you had to make the decision again, and mention the key takeaways from your experience.

Preparing for this question is essential, as it shows that you can navigate tough situations, you think critically, and make sound judgments. Practice your response and ensure that it highlights your strengths and demonstrates your ability to think critically and make tough calls. Remember, this question is an opportunity to shine and showcase your problem-solving prowess and decision-making abilities.

Sample answers

  1. Bad answer:

    Yeah, I've had to make tough decisions in the past, but I can't recall any specific example right now.

    Why it's bad: This answer is vague and unprepared. Interviewers expect specific examples, and this kind of response can reflect poorly on the candidate's communication skills and ability to think on their feet.

  2. Good answer:

    Yes, in my previous job, I had to let go of a team member who wasn't meeting their targets. It was tough because we had built a rapport, but ultimately, it was the best decision for the team and the company. I followed the HR protocol and communicated with the employee in a respectful and empathetic manner, ensuring that all their concerns were heard and addressed. It was a challenging experience, but I learned a lot about leadership and having difficult conversations.

    Why it's good: This answer demonstrates the candidate's ability to handle a difficult situation professionally, with empathy and adherence to protocol. It also highlights their willingness to learn from their experiences and grow as a leader.

  3. Good answer:

    Yes, I once had to make a decision regarding a project that was behind schedule and over budget. The team had invested a lot of time and effort into it, and it was a critical project for our company. I had to weigh the options carefully and decide whether we should continue pouring resources into it or cut our losses and move on. I consulted with stakeholders, analyzed data, and assessed the risks and benefits of each option. In the end, I decided to restructure the project plan and assign additional resources to it. It was a difficult decision, but it resulted in the project being completed on time and within budget.

    Why it's good: This answer demonstrates the candidate's analytical and critical thinking skills. It also highlights their ability to collaborate and consult with stakeholders to make informed decisions in high-pressure situations.

  4. Bad answer:

    No, I haven't had to make any difficult decisions in my career so far.

    Why it's bad: This answer shows a lack of experience and may come across as untruthful. Even if a candidate hasn't faced a tough decision in the workplace, they can always draw from personal or academic experiences to demonstrate their problem-solving, decision-making and leadership skills.

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