Employers have been known to ask some difficult questions during a job interview, such as “What is your biggest weakness?” or “What salary do you think you deserve?” But have you ever been asked to talk about a time when you faced conflict on the job? What did you say? It can be tempting to pretend you never had a conflict or tell part of the story and leave out all the negative stuff. Job seekers worry their answers may reflect poorly on them and decrease their chances of getting the job they are interviewing for.
While it isn’t easy to talk about criticism or conflict in a job interview, you need to have an answer that is truthful and professional. And the best way to do that is to handle criticism properly when it happens.
The Emotional Side of Receiving Criticism
Dealing with criticism is a challenge for all of us. We all want to have the respect of our colleagues and to think that we are doing our job well. So being told that you are doing something badly can be painful to hear.
It is easy for us to see criticism as an attack in which we might “fight back” – response defensively, confronting the critic or throwing accusations back at them – or we may “flee” where we sulk or perhaps complain to others. Either way the issue is not resolved and neither response is good for our working relationships.
Tips for Handling Criticism
1. Take a moment to process.
Don’t respond immediately. Set aside your initial reaction and take the time to think about the criticism objectively before responding. You may need to find a quiet space to contemplate or discuss it with a trusted colleague or friend.
2. Be aware of your tone.
For criticism to be productive, both sides must express themselves calmly and respectfully. One of the most effective things you can do in dealing with criticism is to keep control over your tone of voice.
3. Clarify and acknowledge.
The first step when responding to criticism is to clarify what was said. Make sure you understand what you’ve been told.
Then acknowledge the other person’s point of view. If you think that their feedback is rational and reasonable, then acknowledge that. This deescalates the situation for both you and the critic allowing them to expand on their thoughts and/or offer solutions once they understand that you are listening. Even if you do not agree with the criticism, you can still acknowledge what the other person is saying.
Supervisor: Your desk is such a mess. Why are you so disorganized?
Employee (calmly): You’re saying that I am disorganized because my desk is mess. Looking at my desk right now, I can see why you’d think that.
4. Offer a solution.
People are much more likely to accept an apology if it comes without excuses. If the criticism is reasonable, simply acknowledge your part in the mistake and offer to change it. If you require assistance in order to fix the mistake, then ask for it.
I will have it done by the end of Friday. I would also like to meet with you at some point to discuss how I can better stay on top of this paperwork.
5. Explain (if necessary).
Once the issue has been acknowledged, and if you think it is necessary, calmly explain your side of the story.
I can see why you would think that my desk is a mess. I need to do something to make sure that it doesn’t appear that way. However, I am actually in the middle of preparing document packages and have spread the papers out so I can sort through them.
6. Set boundaries.
You might feel the need to address the way the criticism was given, e.g. if the criticism was done in a public space or in a way that you believe was unfair. Also, if you genuinely think the feedback was unwarranted, you could express that. Use this moment as an opportunity to treat others the way you would like to be treated — without anger, and in a clear and direct way.
Also, I’d like to discuss how you gave this feedback. In future, I would prefer it if you would speak to me privately if you have a concern.
Answering “How do you handle criticism on the job?” in a Job Interview
Like any difficult interview question, preparing your answer ahead of time is key. Prepare for this question by thinking back to a time when you received feedback at work. Ideally, you want to tell the interviewer about a time where you handled the conflict gracefully and rectified the mistake immediately and with efficiency. Give enough detail so it sounds authentic but don’t dwell on the mistake.
If you haven’t deal with a conflict well, you can simply acknowledge that. It may impress an employer to hear that you realize that dealing with criticism is something you need to work on (That’s true for most of us, if we were honest with ourselves). Follow it up with how you would now handle it differently.
Tip: Stay away from recriminations against the person who offered the criticism. You want to show the interviewer that you are able to consider the validity of the criticism and arrive at a solution.
Interviewer: Tell about a time you faced criticism on the job. How did you handle it?
Candidate: I try to always work on handling criticism better. I think I’ve improved a lot over the years. In my last job, my supervisor walked my cubicle and was very critical of how messy it was in a very public way. She expressed concern that I was disorganized. I was able to respond calmly to her initial comment, promising to tidy up, and we made a time to meet and discuss concerns I had about paperwork in the office. We were able to devise a system that enabled me to stay on top of the paperwork.
Interviewer: Is your desk less messy now?
Candidate: It’s not perfect but I have definitely improved now that I have some systems in place. I was pleased to deal with the issue openly with my supervisor.
Remember, the reason employers ask this question in the first place is that they want to know whether you have the capacity to evaluate yourself and accept critique from others. You are allowed to be imperfect. Showing that you are honest and dedicated to self-improvement makes you a more interesting and valuable employee.