Being asked “tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss” in a job interview feels like a trap. What’s the right answer? What do they have to gain by asking you this question?
In this article, we will cover:
Why Hiring Managers Ask “Tell Me About a Time You Disagreed With Your Boss”
Behavioral interview questions are designed to get you talking about your past experiences so that you reveal what it’s like to work with you. In this case, the hiring manager wants to know how you communicate. It’s often believed that “past performance indicates future performance”. This question is designed to figure out how you would deal with any disagreements in the future with your potential boss or coworkers. There will be future conflicts because conflicts are inevitable. How did you deal with them in the past?
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Variations of this Question
You need to know the different ways this question could be worded so that you’re prepared, no matter which one they ask:
- How do you handle conflict?
- Have you disagreed with someone in your group?
- Tell me about a time you disagreed with a company policy
- Can you tell me about a time you made a mistake?
- Tell me about a time you failed
- Tell me about a time that you had a conflict at work
- Have you ever had a conflict with a coworker and resolved it?
- How would you resolve a conflict with a customer/client?
Looking for a way to explain a work conflict in general? We have that covered here:
6 Easy Steps to Ace the “Tell Me About a Time You Disagreed With Your Boss” Interview Question
Choose the right story
This question is not the time to talk about how wrong your boss was that one time or how much you couldn’t stand a company policy and then didn’t do anything about it. This isn’t the time to talk about when you corrected your boss when they made a mistake. No, this question really isn’t about you versus your boss. Remember: your old boss isn’t coming with you to your new job.
So what is the question? The hiring manager wants to know how you deal with the inevitable disagreement in the future. It’s not about who won and who lost – it’s about how everyone can win, together. Choose a time when the issue was solved and both sides (including you) compromised and both sides (including your boss or whoever you disagreed with) also had a bit of winning.
Admit that you disagreed with your boss
While this question can feel awkward to answer, it’s essential that you admit that conflict exists. When a potential employee says that they never argue with anyone, it comes across as disingenuous and phony. Doing this can throw your honesty into question, including your other answers to other questions. Your answers need to be authentic, so it’s important that you have a real answer to this question. Transparency and authenticity are crucial for building trust.
Explain what your responsibility was
First, set the expectations of the scenario. We need to know the basics, first. Think of this like any other story, because first, we need the setting. What were you expected to do? What other factors should we know about? Were you already working a full shift of work? Did you have the right computer program or were you using a substitute? Only give the details we need to know that is relevant to the conflict. We don’t need anything else except the story itself. Set the stage!
Explain the conflict
So now that we know what situation you were in, what was the problem? Were you in charge of using a computer and then the building lost power? Did the manager ask you to do something, but without the proper tools?
The hiring manager needs to know what the conflict was so that they understand why you chose this story. After laying out the situation, explain what you were required to do and why there was an issue. Once the hiring manager understands the situation, they will understand what you were up against. Whether it was finishing a project with an unreasonable timeline or attempting to achieve unreasonable results, it’s important that the hiring manager understand why there was a conflict in the first place. It’s important to the audience that we know what was at stake ahead of time.
Explain what action you took to resolve the issue
So what action did you do? Did you approach your boss for a one-on-one conversation? How did you solve the problem? You can show that you’re willing to take ownership of the issue and then solve it. This is exactly what the hiring manager wants to hear. Do not play down your part in diffusing the situation.
An ideal answer would have you in the role of resolving the conflict using at least one of the following:
- communication- did you need to listen to the other side, discuss what you did agree on, or clarify any past communication?
- compromise- did you need to find a middle ground?
- empathy- could you see where the other person was coming from?
- creative problem solving
Explain how or why it didn’t happen again
The crucial part of your answer is your story’s ending. The ideal situation would be a positive result for everyone. Discussing what good came from the conflict shows that you are a great person to work with, even when there is an issue. Provide information about what you learned, what your boss might have learned, and how things progressed in the future.
What not to do
- Give too much detail. Your whole answer should be under 5 minutes long.
- Give a negative opinion about your boss, the company, or any personal complaints
- Try to “prove” that you “won” this argument. This isn’t about whether or not you were right; it’s about how you handle conflict.
- Don’t bring up unrelated details or other coworkers. It’s about you and your boss – and how it was resolved in the end!
Make it Clear This Wasn’t Common
It’s also important to stress that you don’t often have issues with your boss! When asked “tell me about a time that you disagreed with your boss” no one wants to hear the answer “Oh, which time? There were so many!”. You can even take a minute before answering by saying, “Let me think for a minute.” before responding. While no one is expecting that you magically always agreed with your supervisor, they also don’t want to hear that you never agreed with them. This would be an immediate red flag for the hiring manager that you’re difficult to work with.
The key to answering this is to keep it professional and make sure the story ends with you resolving the issue. This is not the time to list complaints about coworkers, your boss, or your previous workplace. You need to stay calm and professional, so no personal grievances. Staying away from personal issues is essential since it comes across as petty. Focus on a work scenario and a time when you and your boss didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Talk about the situation and what led to a disagreement with your boss, whether it was a miscommunication or a difference of opinions. Be sure to share both sides of the story, including from your boss’s point of view. If you can present this story with both sides of the story, you will come across as professional and logical.
What if I’ve Never Had a Conflict With my Boss
If you’re just starting out in your career, it’s possible that you haven’t had enough experience to have a conflict with your boss. If you don’t have an example, don’t just say “that’s never happened to me!” and nothing else. Instead of saying nothing, explain how you would handle a hypothetical situation. Don’t overly practice your answer, but make sure you have something to say instead of how you have never had that issue. You don’t want to sound like it’s rehearsed, but you don’t want to be stuck without anything to say either.
Putting It All Together
Be sure to pick a genuine issue at work with your boss over a work-related issue that was resolved! There’s no good substitute for a sincere and real answer.
Stay professional! You’re not bringing your old boss to your new job. You’re in a professional environment, so don’t make this personal.
First, explain the situation so your audience understands where you were coming from
Secondly, explain what the conflict was.
Thirdly, how did you resolve it?
Finally, going forward, what happened differently? How did you prevent this from happening again?
“One time that I disagreed with my boss was when he wanted one of my reports to meet an earlier deadline than usual so he could present it at the next meeting with the client. I tried to explain that I couldn’t possibly complete the entire report to it’s fullest by that timeline, even with working longer hours. He insisted that he had to have it by that day.
I asked if my other responsibilities could wait or if someone else could take over temporarily. He wasn’t willing to do that, either. We then went over what goes into each part of the report. We then discussed how many parts the report had to have and how long each section takes me to put together. Neither of us was willing to compromise on the report’s quality, but he understood how long it took.
In the end, he was willing to postpone all of my other work and got another employee to help me out until the report was finished. I had to work some overtime, but he was able to present the report at the next meeting with the client. We both walked away with more understanding of how the other person works and what’s required to get the job done.”
Why This Answer Works
This employee’s answer is spot-on! Let’s break down why: when getting the request for the report, the employee immediately communicates to the right person that this won’t be able to happen with things staying as they are. (While no manager wants to hear why something won’t work, it is vital to communicate if the workload is too much! It’s always preferable to speak up as early as possible and long before the deadline.)
So the employee then shows what a team player they are by asking if they can have help with the other work so that the employee can focus on the report. Asking for help is a great step here in showing the manager that the employee is a team player who wants to get it done! Not asking for help and not communicating if the project is too big would easily lead to burnout and missed deadlines.
It is only after the employee shows the manager what is required to get the report done in the time that the manager understands. Going forward, the manager has a better idea of what is required of these reports and how much time would be required for the employee to accomplish this task. The manager also knows that if there is an issue in the future, the employee will point it out long before the last minute. That employee is now invaluable to the manager.
Second Example of an Answer
It’s not always something large, but your answer can be as simple as a miscommunication that had an impact on the work itself. Consider this story from a night shift security guard:
“One of the few times that I disagreed with my boss was with a scheduling issue. I work nights and he works days, so I don’t see him very often. He usually comes in an hour after I’ve left and vice versa. He usually posts the schedule for the week on a Monday morning and I’ll see it on Monday night.
I had concert tickets for a specific Friday night and wanted to take the time off. Usually, the other people during the day just ask him in person, but I couldn’t do that. Instead, I followed the old-school protocol that was in place and wrote up a time-off request on paper, and put it on his desk, in his inbox.
When the next schedule came out, he had me scheduled for Friday. I wrote a note on the schedule to see the time off request on his desk. He didn’t respond and I didn’t hear from him, so I assumed he found it and it was approved. It turns out that that he doesn’t check the schedule after he’s put it up, so he never saw the note and my time-off request got buried in his in-box on his desk. On Friday, he called me up and demanded to know where I was. Once we got it figured out, we ended up adapting the system to time-off request sheets that went on a board in his office where it wouldn’t have a chance of getting buried! My manager now also lets people know if days off were approved or not within 24 hours, which has really helped stop the confusion.”
Why This Answer Works
This answer is exactly the kind of situation that can happen when there’s more than one shift! Notice the way it was laid out, though: the employee told us what usually happens and what he tried to do. He set the expectations ahead of time. In this case, he tried to ask for a day off but didn’t get a straight yes or no. Then he got to the conflict of Friday night when the manager was upset. We, as the audience, need to know the stakes of the conflict and this time it was an empty shift. Then the employee tells us the resolution of how the scheduling system changed. While the informal in-person request worked for the day shift, it didn’t work for the night shift. Now with a new system in place, that kind of issue won’t happen again. This is an excellent way to talk about a time you disagreed with your boss.
By now, you probably have a few ideas of what times you can discuss at your job interview! If you can keep your story professional and stay focused on the end resolution where everyone wins, you’ll have the best answer!
Worried about other job interview questions? Check out our guides here: