Interview Question: Describe a Time You Had To Make a Difficult Decision

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In a job interview, there are always a few questions you need to prepare answers for. With proper planning and preparation, you can give answers that are convincing and confident. One of the most important of these questions is, 'Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision.' In this article, we explain how to create the best answers and what these can demonstrate to employers.

Related: 31 Common Interview Questions and Answers (With Tips)

Why do interviewers ask, 'Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision'?

There are a few reasons interviewers ask, 'Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision.' The importance of your answer can vary between job interviews and may have more or less significance depending on the role you're interviewing for. Some of the things interviewers may be looking for include:

  • Decision making. You're going to need to make informed decisions in your new job, so the employer wants to know that you have the right judgement to do so effectively.

  • Working under pressure. Difficult decisions are usually made without planning, and you very rarely have time to consider all the factors. Your employer wants to know that you can work well under stressful circumstances.

  • Character. The decision you made in that situation, and the fact that you choose to advertise it, can say a lot about who you are as a person. Take this chance to show off the best side of yourself.

  • Confidence. Employers want to know how good you are at presenting yourself, your actions and therefore the company you work for. If your past choice demonstrates confidence, you might increase your chances of getting the job, especially if there's a chance to progress to a leadership role.

  • Presentation skills. As with any job interview question, you're going to use this question as an opportunity to sell yourself to the interviewer.

How to answer interview questions about difficult decisions

Understanding how to appropriately answer interview questions about challenging choices can help you succeed in your next job meeting. Use these steps to help you prepare an effective answer:

1. Plan in advance

You should try to prepare as much as possible for the most common interview questions. Describing a time you made a difficult decision is one question that is likely to always come up. The first thing you need to do is choose the decision you're going to focus on. This answer is better planned ahead, as your interviewer may ask some follow-up questions that expose your decision as being flawed. Create a shortlist of difficult workplace decisions you've made in the past and narrow the list down to some of the most effective decisions you've made under pressure.

From this point, try to look at these choices from an outside perspective. Ask questions such as, 'Was this the right thing to do in the moment?' and 'What were the long-term consequences of the decision?' Even if the interviewer doesn't ask any follow-up questions, these can open up further opportunities for discussion in the interview. Once you've evaluated your choices, you can prepare a more thorough response that impresses the interviewer and presents you as the right candidate for the role.

Related: How to Prepare for an Interview

2. Use the STAR method

The STAR method is a technique you can use to answer any interview question in a comprehensive manner. It takes the interviewer on a journey, telling them the story behind the decision and why you made it. The STAR methods works as follows:

Situation

First, describe the situation you found yourself in. Although this is best kept brief, it offers you the opportunity to provide as much detail and context as necessary. Many situations in a workplace are far from simple. You could summarise the choice you needed to make in a couple of sentences, but you're probably going to give a more convincing answer by including a little additional detail. By dedicating time at the start of your answer to let the interviewer know as many details as necessary, you give them a complete view of the situation and further rationalise your decision.

Related: 5 Situational Interview Questions and How To Answer Them

Task

This is the point where you go into the specifics of the challenge or decision. While you lay out the background of the company in the 'situation' section, you can go into much finer details about your specific duties or responsibilities in this section. The combination of these two aspects means your interviewer has a comprehensive view of not only the wider company's situation, but the finer details of the decision itself. They are more likely to have a thorough understanding of what needed doing and can better contextualise your answer.

Action

The 'action' step includes describing the specific choices and actions you took in response to the situation. Typically, this is the lengthiest portion of a STAR response, as it shows the interviewer how you specifically impacted the challenge and arrived at a successful conclusion. This is also the part where you can go into a little more detail and explain the rationale for your decision. It's important to remember that the primary focus of your story is yourself and your actions. Even if someone else was at fault, try to avoid overemphasising this, as it can appear unprofessional.

Result

The 'result' portion of a STAR interview response neatly concludes your answer by explaining how your actions, when faced with a difficult situation, provided a positive result. Explain who your actions impacted, for example, your manager, coworkers, customers, or clients, and quantify the value of the results for the interviewer if possible. This is also useful for selecting which story to choose for your answer. A quantifiable result is usually the best, as it's irrefutable proof that your actions were positive.

Related: How To Use the STAR Interview Technique in Competency-Based Interviews

3. Deliver with confidence

After you've established your answer, deliver it to the interviewer with confidence. Using the STAR method can help you determine what to say in an interview, but how you say it and present yourself can be just as important. In some roles where you're going to be expected to deal with clients, customers or colleagues regularly, confidence is a very useful trait. This is why it's so important to prepare your answer in advance, as knowing what to say naturally increases the confidence of your answer.

If you want to improve this, consider asking a friend or family member to practise interview questions with you. This allows you to both practise giving your answer and giving additional information in response to questions. Try to find someone who's had experience in recruitment, HR or management, as they can typically give you the best insights during practice.

Be concise

It can sometimes be tempting to give too much information in your story, but aim to be as concise as possible in a job interview. There are a few reasons why this is important, which could be the difference between you getting the job and narrowly missing out on the role. Concise answers demonstrate that you've clearly understood the question and can give a relevant answer. They also show an interviewer that you have an organised may of thinking and presenting information. Conciseness in your answers can also:

  • Make you appear more confident. Giving too much information or justification with your answers can make it look like you lack confidence in your answers. Instead, confine your answers to only relevant information.

  • Demonstrate communication skills. Being able to concisely get your point across in fewer words is a strong demonstrator of communication skills, which are important in almost any role.

  • Time limits. Many interviewers have a set time slot for every interview and by taking too long, you might not get the chance to answer all their questions.

Related: A Practical Guide To Structured Interviews With Tips and Questions

Example answer

Below is an example answer to the question 'Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision':

'My previous role was as a store manager for a local supermarket. Two of my employees were constantly clashing, making the working environment increasingly hostile for everybody else. One of these employees was very experienced and worked to a high standard, but it was clear he was the one instigating the majority of the incidents. Ultimately, I made the decision to terminate his contract. Reflecting on the situation, I'm glad I made that decision.

In the following weeks, the atmosphere improved significantly, and although the company lost an experienced employee, it was a good opportunity for a junior employee to step up and develop their skills. Although there were some short-term negative impacts, the long term benefits outweighed those significantly. I believe I did what was best and made the right decision for my team and the company. In fact, our customer feedback channels showed an 8% increase in satisfaction in the subsequent period, which most customers attributed to our friendlier staff. Clearly, the improved work environment caused staff to offer better customer service.'

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