How to answer "Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult trade-off or sacrifice?" (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 during job interviews to gauge how candidates make decisions and handle difficult situations. This gives them insight into the candidate's personality traits such as problem-solving ability, analytical skills, decision-making skills, and time management skills. Candidates who have faced difficult trade-offs in the past, and have made a well-reasoned, and difficult decision, are more likely to be successful in future positions. Moreover, employers look to hire candidates who are willing to put in the hard work and make sacrifices for the betterment of the team or organization. Therefore, answering this question honestly, and with specific examples, can help you demonstrate your value to the employer.

How to answer the question

When answering the question, it is important to pick a specific example that reflects your skills, experience, and accomplishments. Start by describing the situation briefly, outlining the specific challenge you faced and the trade-offs or sacrifices you had to make. Then highlight your decision-making process and how you arrived at your decision. Be specific about what you sacrificed, and why it was necessary to do so. Finally, describe the outcome of your decision, and what you learned from the experience.

Use the STARS method to construct your answer:

  • Situation: describe the specific context of the situation.
  • Task: describe the task or goal you were trying to achieve.
  • Action: describe the action(s) you took to achieve the goal.
  • Result: describe the result of your actions. What was the outcome?
  • Skill: describe the skill or quality you utilized to achieve the outcome.

In summary, answering the question "Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult trade-off or sacrifice?" can be a great opportunity to demonstrate your skills and experience, while highlighting your decision-making process. By being honest, specific, and highlighting your accomplishments, you can increase your chances of impressing the employer and landing the job.

Sample answers

Good answer:

At my last job, our department was given a task to complete within a tight deadline. We were already short-staffed, and I had to choose between sacrificing the quality of the project or sacrificing some personal time to work overtime and ensure our team completed the project to a high standard. I chose to sacrifice my personal time and worked overtime to ensure the project was completed to the best of our abilities.

Why it's a good answer: This answer shows that the jobseeker prioritizes quality work and is willing to put in extra effort to achieve it.

Bad answer:

I've never really had to make any difficult trade-offs or sacrifices before, so I can't really give you an answer.

Why it's a bad answer: This answer shows a lack of experience and inability to think on their feet. It's important to come prepared with an answer or be able to think of an example on the spot.

Good answer:

At my previous job, I was leading a project that involved sensitive data. There was a team member who was struggling with their work, and I had to make a trade-off between risking the security of the data by allowing that team member to continue working on the project or replacing them, which would require more time and effort. I decided to replace the team member as I felt that it was important to prioritize the security of the sensitive data.

Why it's a good answer: This answer shows good judgment and prioritizing important factors like security.

Bad answer:

Oh, that reminds me of a time when I had to trade-off between going to a party and studying for an exam. I chose to go to the party and ended up flunking the exam.

Why it's a bad answer: This answer shows poor judgment and a lack of understanding of the importance between personal and professional decisions. The jobseeker trivializes the concept of trade-offs and does not take the question seriously.

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