We have all disagreed with our manager or supervisor at one point or another. Conflict happens, however it can be especially difficult when that conflict is with somebody in authority over you. For this reason, it’s extremely common in interviews to get the interview question:
“Tell me about a time you disagreed with your manager.”
You don’t want the interviewer to think that you frequently clash with your manager (because spoiler, the interviewer is likely going to be your manager). Likewise, you don’t want the interviewer to think that you’re unable to challenge authority if the situation calls for it.
Your response to this common interview question has to get across three things: your ability to communicate, your willingness to challenge your supervisor when appropriate, and your discipline to follow through with the things your manager asks of you.
Why The Interviewers Ask This Question
Let’s go ahead and get started with some of the keys to answering this question. First, though, let’s nail down the main reason they even ask this question! All behavioral questions provide insight into the candidate’s personality and behavior, but this particular question aims to determine if you’re the kind of person who is able to respectfully disagree with management, back up your disagreement with reasoning, but still do what’s asked at the end of the day. Sound simple? Probably easier in an interview response than dealing with that type of conflict in real life, but let’s start with the interview question and maybe tackle real-life work situations later.
Tip #1: Extra Perspective
Before even getting started with your main interview response, I find it’s a great practice to spend a few seconds discussing your overall views on conflict resolution in the workplace. It’s just an easy way to give the interviewer some extra perspective into how you deal with difficult situations and help you stand out amongst the other candidates.
In this situation, I like to mention how much I value open communication, and that a lack of communication is usually the primary source of conflict. Instead of talking behind people’s backs, I prefer to have a direct conversation as quickly as possible to figure out where the real issues lay and fix the problem as soon as possible. This can be anything related to the interview question, it’s really just a chance to throw in some extra distinguishing characteristics for your interviewers to remember you by. An example of this might look like:
“I find that most conflicts in the workplace are communication-based. Either something was miscommunicated or simply wasn’t communicated at all. It’s for this reason that I like to handle most conflicts by simply having a quick conversation with the person to understand their perspective and see where the disconnect is.“
Tip #2: Right or Wrong, Doesn’t Matter
We’re always tempted to put ourselves in the best light when answering these interview questions, and I’m not here to tell you not to do that, although I just want to throw it out there that when you bend over backward to make it sound like nothing is your fault, it kind of backfires. It’s less important than you probably think when answering this interview question. Unless using a very similar situation to the one you’d be expected to face at your new job (which I don’t recommend), the point of this question is really to see how you fixed the situation; whose fault it is doesn’t matter much.
Similarly, when it comes to any workspace conflict, whether or not you’re actually right in the situation honestly has little relevance, especially when discussing a story about you and your manager. In most cases, your boss is the responsible party at the end of the day, therefore the final decision rests with your boss (whether or not it’s a dumb decision). When you’re the boss you can listen to or ignore your direct reports.
That’s why it’s critical that in your response you give your manager the respect they deserve as your authority in the scenario. Again, it doesn’t particularly matter if they were monumentally stupid in their perspective of the situation, this interview question isn’t about throwing your manager under the bus, it’s about your ability to deal with conflict.
This is a theme you’ll see time and time again when it comes to your interview answers. A place where this issue comes up often, such as when answering the interview questions “why are you leaving your current company” and “tell me about a time you failed and how you overcame that failure“.
Tip #3: Bringing Up Your Concerns
It is up to you to make sure that you bring up your concerns with your manager when you disagree. Now I’m not saying you need to speak up every time you disagree with anybody, that could just be asking for problems, but if you have a good reason for thinking there is a better solution to a problem, it is your responsibility to bring up that concern to your manager in a respectful way. The key here is not simply letting your manager know that you disagree with them, but bringing up the reasoning behind that disagreement (ideally backing that up with data… managers love statistics).
This is one of the key tenants of this question, being able to vocalize your disagreement in a respectful and effective manner. Sometimes it’s best to bring up these disagreements in a private meeting or message to your manager, rather than in a larger meeting with others. Even if you’re nervous about going to your manager with your concern, I’ll urge you not to go over your manager’s head and talk to the next person up the ladder. The absolute worse thing you can do is go behind your manager’s back!
Tip #4: Don’t Badmouth Anybody
When answering this interview question, do not disparage your boss or badmouth anybody involved in the situation. The purpose of this question is to see how you handled a stressful situation with your manager, not judge whether or not your manager’s ideas were right or wrong. Put your pride away here and simply show them that you’re a problem solver (regardless of who created the problem) because that’s what they’re really interested in. Along the same lines, nobody cares if a situation from one of your interview responses was your fault or not. It doesn’t really matter whose fault it was as long as you’re showing how you managed to make the situation better. Complaining or being defensive doesn’t make you come across any better, and actually probably makes you look petty and childish.
Tip #5: Respectfully Disagree, And Still Do What’s Asked
Coming from the military, we had a very strict organizational chain of command. At the end of the day, there was no question on if you were going to do something, just a matter of when and how. If I say jump you say how high… anybody?
While that’s not going to be the exact same in the corporate world, the same sentiment holds true to an extent. There is much more freedom and flexibility to challenge others, including your manager. That being said I have found that there it’s not uncommon for individuals to simply not do something their manager asks when they disagree with them.
Maybe that’s because they’re going to try it their way instead, or maybe it’s that they don’t feel they should have to do busy work. Whatever the case, it’s not a given that a new hire will actually do what the manager asks. For that reason, one important thing to include in this interview response is that you’re going to still listen to the things your manager says. If the manager doesn’t feel like they can rely on you to do what they tell you to do, that’s a serious red flag that is likely to get you disqualified as a candidate. So do yourself a favor and ease the manager’s mind about this, and include it in your response.
How To Format Your Response (S.T.A.R)
One important thing to keep in mind when answering this question is that it’s a behavioral question, meaning you’re going to answer it a little differently than other interview questions. At its core, it just means you’re trying to tell a good story that puts you and your actions in the best light, but commonly the interviewer will ask you to answer in a specific format. The S.T.A.R format (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is probably the most common way to approach behavioral questions.
Not 100% confident in what a STAR formatted response is and how to craft your own? Check out this YouTube video.
For your STAR formatted answer to the interview question “tell me about a time you disagreed with your manager”, you’re going to want to use the tips mentioned above to start crafting your individual interview response.
First, start with one or two sentences about how you deal with conflict in general. We’ve already talked about this one and given an example so I won’t beat a dead horse
Next, you’ll set up the Situation portion of the response. Here you’ll need to set the scene about the conflict. This is usually where you’ll mention that you had the courage to disagree with your manager for a legitimate reason. Again, who or what caused the conflict is less important here, you’ll just need enough backstory to set the scene and give the context of your actions. A great way to build that context is to discuss what was at stake with this disagreement.
After that, you’ll want to describe your Task, which in this interview question is resolving the conflict. I find tying the Task with what’s at stake is an easy way to transition from Situation to Task to Action.
Your Actions are going to be the specific steps you took to achieve your task. That will include the exact steps you took to resolve the conflict with your manager. Most of the time this is going to highlight a conversation you had with that manager and subsequent actions.
Finally, your Results are going to speak to why the resolution to the conflict was good for everybody involved. Try to play to the idea that constructive conflict makes the team stronger by improving communication and helps encourage an environment of productive ideas.
Sample Answer – Tell Me About A Time You Disagreed With Your Manager
Now that we’ve covered some of the key details to pay attention to while forming your response, lets take a look at a sample answer to the interview question “Tell me about a time you disagreed with your manager.”
“I find that most conflicts in the workplace are communication-based. Either something was miscommunicated or simply wasn’t communicated at all. It’s for this reason that I like to handle most conflicts by simply having a quick conversation with the person to understand their perspective and see where the disconnect is. For example, a few years ago I was working at an IT help desk.
I was on the phone with a customer who had been passed around between different departments and was very frustrated by the time she got on the line with me. After listening to her I understood that I couldn’t directly solve her problem, but instead of transferring her call to a different department again, I reached out to a colleague who I knew could help solve her problem, and together we were able to fix the issue.
I was later confronted by my manager who scolded me for taking so long on the call. He said that I had been taking too long on most of my calls and that I needed to spend less time on each call in order to get through more customers.
I disagreed with that point of view and felt that I needed to explain why it was important that I spent the extra time on the call. I let him know the situation and that by spending the little bit of extra time on my end, I was able to save the customer much more time and frustration than she would have experienced if I had just transferred her call, frustration that she would have directly associated to our department. Even after my explanation, my manager still disagreed with my actions and stressed the importance of getting through callers more quickly so that we didn’t have such a high wait time.
While I still didn’t agree that we should sacrifice good customer service just to get through calls quicker, I did understand his point that we often had people waiting on hold, and that made for a negative experience for those customers.
As a result of that conversation, I made a conscious effort to improve the efficiency of my calls where possible in order to ensure other customers didn’t have to wait as long to talk to somebody.”
Although you might feel like it, calling your manager a moron isn’t the optimal first choice when addressing a work conflict. That same instinct might strike you when considering your response to the interview question ‘tell me about a time you disagreed with your manager’, however, your response to this question is one that needs to be addressed carefully.
You don’t want the interviewer to walk away from this interview thinking that you’re a conflict-prone applicant who lives to challenge everybody around you. At the same time, you need to show the interviewer that you’re not just a ‘yes-man’ who will do anything without question. In order to walk that line, it’s best to utilize these five tips when forming your interview response:
- Tip #1: Include your perspective on resolving conflicts.
- Tip #2: Focus on the resolution and avoid casting blame.
- Tip #3: Show you’re willing to respectfully disagree with your manager.
- Tip #4: resist the urge to badmouth anybody involved.
- Tip #5: Show that at the end of the day, you’ll do what’s asked of you.
By following these five simple tips, you’ll show the interviewer that you’re an emotionally intelligent team player, who can challenge your manager, but still follow through when it comes down to it. These are things that a manager wants in an applicant and will give you the best shot at landing the job.
Related Interview Questions
Don’t forget to check out these other common questions that will likely be asked in your next interview:
- Tell Me About Yourself
- Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years
- What Is Your Greatest Weakness
- What Is Your Greatest Strength
- Why Are You Leaving Your Current Company
- Why Should We Hire You
- Why Do You Want To Work Here