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How to Answer Interview Questions About Overcoming Adversity

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When you prepare for a job interview, you will undoubtedly research the company's history, and compare the qualifications and experience on your resume to the job posting. But devote some of your prep time for drafting answers to typical interview questions. This includes behavioral interview questions where the recruiter or hiring manager will expect you to explain workplace challenges you encountered and how you resolved those challenges. Questions that many recruiters and hiring managers ask is "Describe a challenge you overcame," and "Provide examples overcoming obstacles at work." The best approach a job candidate can use for responding to such questions is to use the STAR method, which means you are describing a Situation, Task, Action and Results.

Describe Work History for Context

While you are preparing for interview questions, practice describing your work history. Doing this gives the interviewer context that's helpful in understanding your answers to questions about adversity. This way, you don't have to interrupt your adversity-related responses with an explanation about the jobs to which you're referring for each example about handling adversity. For example, when you give answers to questions about adversity, you won't have to stop the flow of your response with something like, "This was a job where I was assistant to the president of the company and my duties included scheduling, prioritizing meetings and delivering presentations to the board members." If you provide context by describing your work history upfront, when you give examples of overcoming obstacles at work, you don't have to rehash what you have already described in the initial description of your work history.

Depending on how long you have been in the workforce, it should take 60 seconds or less to give the recruiter or hiring manager a synopsis of your professional experience. You needn't give precise dates, but you should indicate how many years you worked for each job on your resume or application. When you are describing your work history, make sure both you and the interviewer have a copy of your resume to which you can refer during your 60-second summary of work experience.

Examples of Overcoming Obstacles at Work

While preparing for your interview, jot down three examples of times when you have been challenged at work or when you faced adversity in the workplace. Workplace obstacles can include a number of scenarios that might include how you interact with your colleagues or clients, or even your job performance. Some work-related adversity examples include the following:

  • You're assigned to complete a marketing project with a team of coworkers, and out of four people assigned to this project, you believe you are best qualified to lead the team. After all, it's your marketing degree and five years of experience in the field that impressed the hiring manager enough to bring you onboard as the assistant director. However, another team member - not the director - successfully developed marketing campaigns for the same kind of product and has been with the company for 10 years.
  • You can't seem to find common ground with your supervisor. Going to the human resources manager isn't out of the question, but you would prefer to have a candid talk with your supervisor so you can work out the issues before taking steps to file a complaint.
  • For the past several months, you just haven't been engaged at work, and your job satisfaction has dropped significantly. You're no longerexcited about going to the office like you once were. It's beginning toaffect your job performance and your supervisor put you on a performance improvement plan with just 30 days to improve.

Any of these scenarios are perfect examples of adversity in the workplace; however, when using actual examples, be careful about casting a negative light on your supervisor or coworkers. While prospective employers know that everyone encounters challenges at work, they are more interested in knowing that you're collegial and that your on-the-job experiences don't always point the finger at someone else. Also, never use examples of overcoming obstacles at work that involve serious or potential litigious matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination or disparate treatment, even if you have experienced those kind of challenges. A prospective employer doesn't want to have to worry if you will someday carry a MeToo banner.

Using the STAR Method

The STAR method is an excellent approach for responding to behavioral questions during your interview. Many recruiters and hiring managers want to know how you handle on-the-job challenges in previous jobs, because that's the greatest predictor of how capable you are of handling similar challenges in your next job. When you use the STAR method for giving answers to questions about adversity, it means you describe the Situation, explain your job Tasks, give details about the Action you took to resolve the challenge, and share your Results or outcome with the interviewer. The recruiter or hiring manager with whom you are interviewing will likely recognize the STAR method you're using, and you might get extra points for spending the time to prepare for the interview.

Describe the Situation

Your first step in providing adversity examples is to describe the situation. Give enough details about the situation so the interviewer doesn't have to ask too many follow-up questions. For example, you could begin with, "When I was the senior partner's legal assistant at Smith & Doe, there was a class action matter that required a team of four legal assistants to adequately prepare the case for trial. As the senior partner's legal assistant, I was responsible for enlisting the help of three other colleagues, based on their experience and familiarity the senior partner's preferences for trial prep. Trial prep required us to summarize depositions, prepare witnesses for testimony, organize and label exhibits, and coordinate assistance during the actual three-week trial. The challenge of being a team leader was largely attributed to the fact that the four legal assistants had varying levels of interest in the case, as well as different approaches to completing the trial prep in the most efficient manner."

If you need to identify people during your STAR response, use pseudonyms and tell the interviewer that you are not disclosing actual names. And, of course, don't reveal personal information about any other parties involved in your scenario. Provide sufficient detail about the situation in this stage of your answer to questions about adversity, but avoid getting too far in the weeds about your challenge.

Explain Your Job Tasks

In the next stage of your response, describe your tasks. Following the same scenario, you could say, "My tasks involved assessing all of the jobs that needed to be completed before the case went to trial, and estimating how much time each job would take to complete. I was the only legal assistant who could devote full time to this case because other team members had their normal job in addition to this trial prep. I purposely selected three other legal assistants, whose workloads appeared to be rather light, so that they wouldn't be overwhelmed and could volunteer to help." This summation of your tasks prepares the interviewer for learning more about the finite tasks you have completed that eventually lead to your examples of overcoming challenges at work.

Follow up with your specific tasks through explaining each step, as in "I emailed six legal assistants to ask who had the time to work on another case. I then met with four who volunteered, explained the trial prep duties and how the work would be divided among team members. One person backed out, which left a total of four legal assistants among which I would divide six major tasks. During our team meetings, I gave examples of how I would distribute the work, but one challenge arose when a long-tenured legal assistant demanded that she be responsible for overseeing the deposition summaries. There was another team member who wanted to be involved in summarizing depositions, but wasn't entirely comfortable working with the de facto leader of deposition summaries."

During this stage of your STAR response, you introduce your challenge or adversity and provide sufficient detail about the tasks involved. You're now ready to describe your action and the results. When you are describing adversity that involves colleagues (or, supervisors) avoid negativity. For example, don't ascribe not-so-pleasant characteristics to any of the people who were parties to the adversity.

Give Details About Your Actions

Describe how you approached the challenge in the Action stage of your STAR response. In this scenario, it is the presumably adverse relationship between the two legal assistants, each of whom wanted to work on summarizing depositions, and the legal assistant who seemingly usurped your authority as the team lead responsible for assigning the work.

You could describe your actions related to asserting your role as the team lead during a meeting with the four legal assistants. By doing so, you provide examples of overcoming obstacles at work concerning your position and authority. If you are interviewing for a leadership role, this clearly demonstrates your ability to communicate your role and responsibilities to colleagues and direct reports. It might also demonstrate your leadership capabilities where in a client-facing role and show the interviewer that you are comfortable handling situations that involve people whose perspectives differ from your own.

Another action-related description you can provide to the interviewer as an example of overcoming obstacles at work is facilitating a discussion between the two legal assistants who both wanted to work on the depositions. If you are effective in resolving conflict between peers or colleagues, that demonstrates that your coworkers respect you.

Summarize the Results

The final step in your STAR response to an adversity interview question is to talk about the results or resolution. For this same scenario, describe the type of progress you made in resolving an interpersonal conflict that may have existed between the two legal assistants who wanted to work on the same deposition summary assignment. Also, explain what resulted from your candid conversation with the legal assistant who - based on her tenure and experience with the firm - wanted to be in a team lead role. When you describe the outcome as an example of overcoming obstacles at work, draw parallels between your past work experience and challenges you believe might arise if you accept a new job.

You might even consider asking the interviewer if she would share with you some of the challenges that you might face should you accept a position with the company. Here is where quick thinking can come in handy. If the interviewer shares with you some of the challenges that previous employees have had in that role, you can describe - using the STAR method, of course - when you have encountered a similar challenge throughout your work history.

Post-Interview Feedback

When your interview is nearly finished and you're back to relatively easy questions about the and your work experience, as the interviewer if there is any additional information you can provide that will demonstrate you are fully capable of recognizing and resolving workplace challenges. This conveys a message that you are interested in providing complete and useful answers to the interviewer's questions. But it also gives you the opportunity to learn how you can improve your responses to questions that are designed to measure your ability for overcoming workplace challenges and adversity.


Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In addition, she earned both the SHRM-Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP), through the Society for Human Resource Management, and certification as a Senior Professional Human Resources (SPHR) through the Human Resources Certification Institute. Ruth also is certified as a facilitator for the Center for Creative Leadership Benchmarks 360 Assessment Suite, and is a Logical Operations Modern Classroom Certified Trainer. Ruth resides in North Carolina and works from her office in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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