There is something you should know about this interview question:
"Tell me about a time you gave someone difficult feedback."
It’s a behavioral question. Giving bad feedback is something that comes up in everyone’s career. Behavioral questions are based on the theory that past performance is the best predictor of future performance.
In other words, how you responded to giving bad feedback in the past is likely how you’ll respond in the future.
This type of question takes the candidate out of the hypothetical realm and requires him or her to give a specific example of when you demonstrated how to give negative feedback to employees, a challenge was overcome, or a problem solved.
Never try to “wing it”
When candidates haven’t prepared for behavioral interview questions, they inevitably do one of two things:
- Speak in generalities
- Give a very incomplete (and uncompelling) response.
In other words, the answer comes out either as “I’m very confident in giving difficult feedback. This isn’t a problem for me”, or something along these lines of, “I had to tell an employee he had body odor. I did it, and he stopped smelling.” (Incomplete and uncompelling)
Your “toolbox” of stories
To answer behavioral questions I recommend you build five to ten “CAR” stories to take to the interview in your mental toolbox. “CAR” is an acronym for “Challenge|Action|Result”.
- Explain the challenge you were faced with when giving difficult feedback.
- Talk about the specific action steps you took to address the problem.
- Explain the results achieved with specific metrics whenever possible.
Having five to ten “CAR” stories will give you enough tools in your toolbox so that, no matter what questions you are asked, you’ll have a story to support your answer.
“CAR” stories can be used for non-behavioral questions, too. For example, if you are asked about your three greatest strengths, you might use a “CAR” story to support each of the strengths you list.
Tackling our specific behavioral question
Finally, we address the question, “Tell me about a time you gave someone difficult feedback.” Here’s an example of how to approach this question, using my real-life example of the previously mentioned “body odor” situation.
- “One of the most uncomfortable situations early in my career as a manager was when I had a male employee with a body odor problem. We lived in Georgia, and he would play ping pong on his lunch break, apparently very competitively, so by mid-afternoon his body odor was quite offensive.”
- “I would love to tell you I handled this situation immediately, but I just didn’t know how to have this type of conversation at that point in my professional development. I put it off, asked my boss for advice, and even sent the employee home early a few times ‘for doing a great job. Finally, I scheduled a performance review and began by telling him everything he was doing right. When I could put it off no longer, I timidly brought up the issue at hand.”
- “To my surprise, his response was ‘Thank you for letting me know. I had no idea. I will take care of that. And he did. What I learned from that experience was not everyone takes things as personally as I do. I could have alleviated a lot of angst on my part by handling this situation quickly and directly. That experience really helped me build my ability to be direct and honest with feedback. After all, employees can’t improve if they don’t know they are doing something wrong.”
Putting a bow on it
I like to call that last part “putting a bow on your answer.” Whenever you can say what you learned from that situation and/or how your answer translates to the position you are applying for, it’s like giving yourself extra credit points.