There are no right or wrong answers to 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 / or promotion interviews simply because they want to see that, when you face a difficult decision or situation, you are 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 will do in the future.
The Best Ways to Respond to Tough Questions
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 promotion when you have several great candidates.
-Deciding whether you have to cut benefits that employees are used to receiving (like holiday bonuses) in order to help stabilize company finances.
You want to come across as confident and capable of making big dicisions calmly and rationally. Avoid examples that make you seem indecisive or uncertain.
Also keep your answers positive ("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").
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.
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 successful solved a difficult situation.
Examples of the Best Answers
-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.
-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 do not relish making those kinds of choices, I do not shy away from this part of my job. A few years ago, I had to let some employees go due to the economic climate. This was a hard decision that was ultimately necessary for the good of the company and everyone working for the organization.
-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 occassions when, even though I personally liked one person better than another, I nonetheless had to choose the 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 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.
Forewarned is forearmed. Anticipating the questions you might be asked or should yourself ask in a job interview is a wise strategy. If you test yourself using the questions outlined in the linked articles above, you will go into your next interview prepared and confident.