Interview Question: “What’s the Most Difficult Decision You’ve Had to Make?”
Updated March 10, 2023
During the course of a job interview, it's common for potential employers to ask about challenging experiences you've had in the past and how you navigated those situations. They may ask about the most difficult decision you’ve had to make and how you made it to assess your ability to use good judgment.
In this article, we discuss why interviewers ask about your decision-making skills, share tips on how to provide a targeted answer and provide example answers.
Why employers ask about difficult decisions
When an interviewer asks about difficult decisions you’ve had to make, they are hoping to understand your process and solutions. They want an answer that demonstrates that you can confidently make logical decisions for their company.
They might ask you to describe a time you made a difficult decision or handled a crisis to assess a number of skills and qualities, including:
Employers may want to determine how decisive and confident you are in your choices or assess your ability to defend your actions. The way you describe a past difficult decision could demonstrate the attitude and mindset you'd bring to their company. This is especially important if you are applying for a leadership role where your choices directly impact others.
Some employers may focus on how you gather information before making a choice. They might look at whether you sought feedback from your team, researched similar situations or made quick decisions. As you frame your answer, it’s important to focus on how you research possible outcomes in collaborative roles where you consult and give advice.
Interviewers may ask this question to learn about your strategic thinking skills and understanding of cause and effect. They look for answers that emphasize that you understood the impact of your choice and how you weighed the benefits of each possible outcome. Many roles require leaders to manage risks and make choices that follow the company's strategic goals.
Asking about a time when you had to make a touch choice lets interviewers consider how self-aware you are about the impact of your actions and thought processes. This question shows how you perceive difficult situations and decide the best way to navigate them. Interviewers filling positions where employees represent the company or brand ask this question to find candidates who understand how others might judge their choices and actions.
Your behavior during difficult situations can be a reflection of your values and ethics. Interviewers look for candidates who uphold their company's standards of fairness and ethical behavior. This question can show how a candidate follows company procedures and responds to ethical dilemmas, indicating trustworthiness and a desire to support their team.
Related: Business Ethics: Types and Examples
Tips on selecting a tough decision to discuss
While preparing for the interview, brainstorm different times you made a difficult decision so that you have an example or two prepared if the topic comes up. These tips can help you select an appropriate anecdote that can form the basis for a good answer:
1. Consider your professional experience
Try to choose a past decision that is related to your professional experience. Discussing decisions that are relevant to your desired career show the interviewer how you would behave in a similar role. If you don't have professional experience, think about decisions you made about your life or education that could indicate a desirable mindset for employers in your field.
2. Choose defining moments
Brainstorm the choices you made that impacted your workplace and your personal career path the most. Selecting an impactful event shows potential employers that you can be a significant positive influence on their team. Relevant decisions that had a measurable influence can provide you with a compelling topic that showcases your talents.
3. Recall your thought process
Select a memory where you can clearly remember your thought process and the details of the situation. You want to be able to respond to any clarifying questions easily and reference events accurately. The interviewer will want to know what led you to make your decision so they can understand how you would make similar decisions if hired.
How to answer the “difficult decision” question
Once you decide on an experience to talk about, you can move on to turning that memory into an impressive response in an interview. Follow these steps to generate a good answer that is relevant to the job:
1. Briefly introduce the scenario
Select the key points of the challenging situation that you had to resolve by making a decision. Try to set up your story by succinctly explaining any necessary context, making sure to stay focused on the essential details. Avoid including too much information that could distract the interviewer from the purpose of your answer.
2. Identify the conflict
Explain the different options you had to choose from when making your decision. Discuss why those conflicting choices made it challenging for you to select an outcome and acknowledge the different perspectives in the scenario to show awareness of the situation.
3. Decide which qualities to highlight
As you discuss the situation, reference the characteristics you exhibited that are most relevant to the job. Talk about the qualities you displayed by making the tough decision by referencing actions that demonstrate those skills and characteristics. For example, if you wanted to show leadership, you could focus on the strategies you used to get your team to support your decisions.
4. List the influencing factors
Talk about what factors contributed to your decision and how you compared the pros and cons of each choice you could make. Describe the thought process you experienced when trying to make the best decision. Recognize different points of view but indicate the factors you thought were more important and why. Show that you took the decision seriously and thought carefully about its consequences.
5. State your choice
Clearly explain the decision you made and the actions you took to enact it. The interviewer should be able to easily follow your line of thought explaining the decision. Show confidence in your choice and justify why you thought it was the right thing to do in that situation.
6. Identify the outcome
Explain how your choice impacted you and the business to demonstrate that you take accountability for the impact of your actions. Talk about how you mitigated any potentially negative outcomes or responded to unanticipated events that your decision caused.
7. Reflect on the decision
Discuss any lessons learned from making the choice(s) you did and identify anything you might have done differently in hindsight. Reflecting on the scenario lets interviewers know that you are committed to growing your decision-making skills and refining your approach to solving problems.
"Difficult decision” sample answers
Everyone has different experiences, so each answer depends on the candidate's values and professional opportunities. These sample answers demonstrate how to discuss the experience of making a tough choice so that you can apply the structure to your own career. Each example highlights the candidate's strengths by sharing a situation where they made a hard choice:
"In my previous role as a store manager, I was responsible for choosing which keyholders to promote to assistant manager. I had two excellent employees interested in the position who both started with the company at the same time, which meant I couldn't use seniority to make my decision. I used a combination of sales data, had the candidates take leadership assessments and spoke to them about their goals to choose the better candidate.
I didn't want to create any animosity on the team by making the person I didn't hire feel unappreciated, so I spoke to the candidate we didn't choose and discussed other positions where they could start to grow in the company and connected them with resources to grow their professional skills."
"I had to manage a 20% departmental budget cut that put a significant amount of stress on my staff. I knew that I needed to maintain staff salaries and keep our core functions running, and we would have to sacrifice some projects to meet budgetary guidelines. I did an internal audit of our most popular free programs and eliminated the ones with the lowest engagement to allow us to spend less on resources while maintaining our impact. I also talked to my team about where they saw the most financial waste in our department.
We were able to avoid layoffs and contribute our efforts to new digital initiatives once we started to focus on our core function instead of misdirecting time and resources to unpopular programs. That situation taught me to be decisive and confident while focusing on the company's mission."
"As a freelance graphic designer, one of the hardest choices I made was choosing to end a relationship with a client. Their projects made up a significant portion of my regular income, and I appreciated the opportunity to grow my portfolio with their requests. However, they continually disrespected my professional boundaries by asking for free content, suddenly moving up project deadlines and making unauthorized changes to my designs. Although I wanted to find a way to please this client, I realized our relationship was unfair to myself and my other clients.
I informed the client that after the current project I would no longer be able to provide them with my services, and I stuck to my convictions when they offered a higher pay rate. The decision allowed me to spend more time attracting other clients and diversifying my business."
"When I worked at the library I launched a teen program series that did not get the expected attendance and audience satisfaction rates. After making several adjustments, I had to decide if I was going to see the project through to completion or terminate it early and redirect the library resources to other programs. After talking to my mentor and researching the programs that neighboring libraries offered, I made the challenging choice to end my project, applying the lessons I learned from the failure to improve other initiatives.
Looking back, I'm glad that I chose to end the project, even though I had a personal stake in its success. We were able to use that program's time block to expand one of our most popular programs and increase our reach in the community over the summer instead of losing valuable time leading up to the school year."
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