Job Interview Question: "How Do You Handle a Challenge?"

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Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019

The question, "How do you (or did you) handle a challenge?” can be a tricky one. On one hand, it’s an opportunity for you to communicate your problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, along with your aptitude for succeeding under stress.

 On the other hand, there are multiple ways to handle a challenge. One company might prefer an employee who takes a measured, methodological, and planned approach, whereas another organization might prefer individuals who dive in and do all they can to meet the challenge, without necessarily thinking of the bigger picture.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

Every employee will face challenges from time to time. With this question, interviewers want to get a sense of your approach. Depending on the office culture, some approaches will make more sense than others. 

Depending on the industry, different techniques for managing problems may be a priority. 

How to Answer "How Did You Handle a Challenge?"

Follow this three-step strategy to formulate an effective response:

Step 1: Recall a challenge that was significant, but one that you consider a success. 

Most importantly, you want to be able to discuss a real professional challenge or problem, not an arbitrary or annoying occurrence. You also want to be able to define how you met the challenge successfully.

If possible, mention a challenge most relevant to the role you’re applying to.

In your answer, you'll want to set up the challenge clearly and succinctly. 

Step 2: Don’t just say what you did—explain how you did it. 

The employer is interested in learning your approach to a challenge, including the actions you took and your thought process. Don’t skip ahead to the end result. Use specifics to describe what you did to contribute to the solution.

Step 3: Emphasize the outcome and what you learned from it. 

Employers want to hire individuals who can turn challenges into opportunities. When brainstorming an answer, think about ways to emphasize how you made the most of a difficult time. Of course, in the real world, it’s not possible to wave a magic wand and transform every difficulty into a grand success. It is possible to learn from your hardships, and then apply what you learned to future challenges. Make sure to express your takeaways and how challenges have helped you grow. 

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Watch Now: 3 Tips for Answering "How Did You Handle a Challenge?"

Examples of the Best Answers

During a difficult financial period, I was able to satisfactorily negotiate repayment schedules with multiple vendors. I developed a mutually beneficial payment plan and barter program that worked with my company’s revenue flow and project schedule, and the vendor needs at the time. In addition, the agreement was easier for me to obtain because I worked very hard at developing a positive relationship with the vendor in the months that we’d been working together. From this experience, I learned the importance of thinking outside the box while solving a problem. I also learned the importance of developing and maintaining good relationships with vendors.

Why It Works: This response clearly lays out how the candidate was able to meet this challenge. Plus, this response also highlights new abilities and know-how gained in response to this challenge. 

When the software development of our new product stalled, I coordinated the team that managed to get the schedule back on track. We were able to successfully troubleshoot the issues and solve the problems, within a very short period of time, and without completely burning out our team. I was able to do this by motivating the senior engineering team to brainstorm a technologically innovative solution that would solve the customer’s issues with fewer development hours on our end.

Why It Works: This answer highlights two qualities that are often very important to employers: staying on schedule, and motivating employees. If this response had stopped at the first sentence, it would be vague—those extra details on the "how" of tackling this challenge make such a difference in this answer's power.

A long-term client was about to take their business to a competitor. I met with the customer and was able to change how we handled the account on a day-to-day basis, in order to keep the business. From this situation, I learned the importance of being mindful of client relations and operations, not just after issues arise, but for the duration of the relationship. As a result, other account managers have adopted my check-in and management processes, and have also seen improved results with their accounts.

 

Why It Works: Not only did this candidate learn a meaningful strategy, but the person also shared the information widely (rather than hoarding it). This answer makes it clear how valuable the employee would be to his or her team.  

Our company newsletter was frequently sent late—and worse, sometimes had errors or typos. It was a bad look for the marketing department. I reviewed this newsletter workflow with the team, which revealed several issues: There was no deadline for newsletter submissions and no one person had ownership of the project. Our marketing coordinator had recently requested more responsibility, so I asked her to oversee the process. Together, we created a schedule, a form for submissions, and a review process. Since instituting these changes, the newsletter has gone out precisely on time and error-free—plus, clicks and opens have increased.

Why It Works: The candidate clearly states the challenge and why rectifying it was important. Then, the steps taken to improve the situation are clearly laid out. Ending on a kicker of positive results beyond simply fixing the problem is a nice positive sign-off to the response.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Show your work: As mentioned above, you'll want to walk through your process and the strategies you used.

Don't forget the big picture: If tackling this challenge changed your work flow or work style, or there was a big overarching lesson, mention it. And, don't forget to mention the end result. 

Keep it simple: Try not to get bogged down in jargon or company-specific workflows and terminologies. Your goal is to share the challenge—and your resolution—in easy-to-follow language.

What Not to Say

Don't place blame: Did a challenge arise because of your supervisor's incompetence, or a co-worker's carelessness? This is not the right time to mention that. Avoid pointing fingers. Keep your description of the challenge neutral in tone.

Stay away from insignificant occurrences: Ideally, you'll highlight a situation that is relevant, such as a challenge that many companies face. That way, the interviewer will be able to visualize your on-the-job performance.

Possible Follow-up Questions

Some questions that you might get after you respond include:

Key Takeaways

Focus on process over results. The outcome is important, but so too is how you arrived at it.

Opt for relevant challenges. When possible, aim to share a situation that shows off a learned skill that will benefit the company you're interviewing with.

Describe the challenge quickly. That way, you can dig into the resolution, and your process to get there, which is what interviewers are most interested in hearing.