Interview Question: "What Are the Most Difficult Decisions to Make?"

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••• Getty Images/Jon Feingersh

There are no right or wrong answers to interview questions like, “What are the most difficult decisions you have to make in your position?” or, “Have you ever had to make a really tough decision at work?"

Employers ask these questions in job and promotion interviews simply because they want to see that, when you face a difficult decision or situation, you’re able to handle it. They also want to see what kind of decisions you consider difficult.

These are behavioral interview questions designed to discover how you have managed certain situations. The logic behind these types of questions is that how you behaved in the past is a predictor of what you’ll do in the future.

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Watch Now: Tips for Answering "What Are the Most Difficult Decisions You Make?"

The Best Ways to Respond 

Essentially the interviewer is assessing your decision-making skills. When answering these questions, give one or two concrete examples of difficult situations you have actually faced at work. Then discuss what decisions you had to make to remedy the situations. A few of the most challenging decisions that people in mid-management and senior management have to make include:

  • Deciding who to terminate if layoffs become economically necessary
  • Terminating well-meaning, but incompetent, team members
  • Deciding who to promote when you have several great candidates
  • Deciding whether you have to cut benefits that employees are used to receiving (like holiday bonuses) to help stabilize company finances

You want to come across as confident and capable of making big decisions calmly and rationally. Avoid examples that make you seem indecisive or uncertain.

Whatever answer you give, be specific. Itemize what you did, how you did it, and how your difficult decision ultimately profited your team and your employer.

Also, keep your answers positive. For example, "Even though it was a difficult decision to lay-off that particular employee, I did so in an extremely professional manner, and this decision ultimately led to improvements in efficiency and productivity throughout our department.”

The best way to prepare for questions where you will need to recall events and actions is to refresh your memory. Skim through your resume and reflect on some special situations you have dealt with or projects you have worked on. You can use them to help frame responses. Prepare stories that illustrate times when you have successfully solved a difficult situation.

Examples of the Best Answers

Take a look at these examples and think about how you could come up with similar responses:

Decisions I have to make within a team are difficult, only because these decisions take more time and require deliberate communication between team members. For example, I was working on a team project, and my colleagues and I had to make a number of choices about how to use our limited budget. Because these decisions involved group conversations, our team learned how to communicate effectively with one another, and I believe we ultimately made the best decisions for the team.

Why It Works: This is a good example of how to use the STAR interview response technique, where you reflect upon a past situation, describe an assigned task, explain the action you took, and conclude with an analysis of the result of your action. Responding in this way not only answers the question, but also shows that you have reflected about past approaches and their outcomes.

As a manager, the most difficult decisions I make involve layoffs. Before making those tough decisions, I always think carefully about what is best for the business and my employees. While I don’t relish making those kinds of choices, I don’t shy away from this part of my job. A few years ago, I had to let some employees go due to the economic climate. It was a hard decision that was ultimately necessary for the good of the company and everyone working for the organization.

Why It Works: This is an honest answer in which the candidate takes ownership of his actions in “making the hard calls.” He explains the approach he takes in making weighty decisions, acknowledges their necessity, and concludes that is actions were made for the greater good.

I find that the hardest decision I have to make is when I have to choose between strong team members for a promotion. There have been occasions when, even though I liked one person better than another, I nonetheless had to choose the other person based on their potential to assume the responsibilities of their new role. Sometimes I also had to promote younger employees over staff with seniority, simply because they were more skilled in the use of technology and more willing to work overtime. It’s never easy, but ultimately you have to think about who will be the most effective and productive in the new position.

Why It Works: Here the interviewee demonstrates that she is able to be objective in basing her decisions not upon her personal preferences, but upon what she knows will result in the most positive outcome for her company. Her tone demonstrates her maturity, her solid analytical process, and her willingness to make difficult decisions.

Take Some Time to Prepare

Forewarned is forearmed: anticipating the questions you might be asked during a job interview is a wise strategy. If you test yourself using the examples above and these common interview questions and answers, you’ll be more confident during your actual interview.

Also, prepare some questions of your own. Your interviewer will expect you to have some questions about the job or the company. If you feel like you need a little help, review this guide to interview questions for you to ask the interviewer.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

Key Takeaways

REVIEW THE SAMPLE ANSWERS: Use these examples as models for your own answers, using the STAR interview response technique to describe how you have made a difficult work decision in the past.

OWN YOUR DECISIONS: Explain the rationale behind your past choices calmly, owning your ability to make difficult decisions with thoughtfulness and objectivity.

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE: Conclude your story of a hard choice you had to make by explaining the positive outcome of your decision in the overall picture or the long run.