In any job interview, you’re bound to be hit with one or more “behavioral” questions, the ones that ask you to describe your response to real or hypothetical work situations, and one of the more popular questions concerns your reaction to stressful situations in the workplace.
It’s a reasonable question. No job is immune from stress, whether you’re a retail clerk trying to cope with an irate customer, a programmer faced with an insane deadline or the head of Wells Fargo Bank facing a committee of hostile Senators. The stakes may vary, but performing well under pressure is something that all employers value.
As a result, your answer can make or break your interview performance.
What to Say
You can attack the question from several angles, opting for anything from a simple declaration to a more elaborate explanation. As long as you choose an approach that feels natural to you, you’re off to a good start.
• I do some of my best work under pressure, and I relish the challenge.
• I enjoy working on multiple projects at the same time, and the opportunity to do so has been a chance to really refine my organizational skills.
• When faced with competing, high-pressure demands, I’ve learned to prioritize, and I’ve learned to call on supervisors, teammates and subordinates to sort the priorities and identify those that matter most to the organization.
• Stressful times call for bringing out the best you have to offer, but it’s more than an individual test. It’s also a test of your ability to work well with everyone who’s trying to cope with those same pressures. It’s a test of your entire team, and that means that you need to pay attention to team functioning when the pressure isn’t necessarily at its peak. Waiting until the heat is on can lead to problems. Preparation matters.
• I look on stressful situations as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. I learn new ways of coping all the time, and working under pressure has actually been great for my organizational skills.
As noted, though, those are only places to start. For best results, don’t stop when you’ve described some abstract skills that you’ve developed and deployed. Instead, make it concrete. Tell a story.
Think of an example that shows your highly stressed self in action. Perhaps you were under immense pressure because of a number of competing deadlines. You prioritized. Perhaps you enlisted your supervisor’s help to determine which projects needed to be first on the list. Perhaps you called in another team member who was working on a lower priority project for a temporary assist. Perhaps you rearranged things with some other piece of the project’s structure to accommodate the deadline that truly mattered.
If it helps, organize your story in terms of situation, action and result, the “SAR” approach. What was the situation? What actions did you take? What results did you achieve?
It’s not the details themselves that matter. It’s the fact that you back things up with details in the first place. That’s what makes your answer believable.
What to Avoid
There are a number of answers that just don’t work, and they’re all fairly obvious:
• Don’t talk about a situation in which your actions themselves were the cause of the stress.
• Don’t choose a situation in which the pressure got the better of you.
• Don’t claim that you’re immune to stress. If you’re a human applicant, that’s not a believable answer, and it tends to indicate that you may not be paying much attention to what happens around you. Obliviousness and apathy are not desirable qualities in an interviewer’s eyes.
• Don’t focus too much on your feelings. Talk about what you did, why you did it and how you succeeded.
You may have noticed a parallel between effective answers to the interview question and effective resume-writing. In both cases, you want to emphasize your strengths, however you choose to define them, and to avoid talking about weaknesses. (You may well be asked about those, too, but now is not the time to volunteer.) Real impact, however, in the interview and in the resume, comes from couching those strengths in terms of concrete accomplishments. The story of how you overcame the stress, managed the pressure and arrived at a triumphal ending is the story that will stick with an interviewer.
Prepare that story in advance, practice it a few times and you’ll be in good shape for the high-pressure situation of the interview itself.