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Job interviews aren’t exactly what you’d call a barrel of laughs. They can be stressful and uncomfortable to say the least, though a necessary evil if you want to land yourself a job and a steady income.
They can often feel like you’re being interrogated for a crime you did not commit, but preparing for the interview and difficult questions like ‘How well do you work under pressure?’ can make all the difference.
In this quick guide, you’ll learn why interviewers ask this question, how to answer it and what mistakes you should avoid to blow the hiring manager’s socks right off and get the job.
Why hiring managers ask this question
It’s often a mystery as to why interviewers ask candidates certain questions, especially the bizarre variety, but there’s a perfectly valid reason why you’re being asked about your ability to work under pressure.
Employers want to know if you’re able to work efficiently in a demanding and fast-paced environment and whether you’re prepared to go the extra mile. They want to know they’re hiring someone who can coolly evaluate situations, stay focused, take charge and simply get the job done.
This question, and the answers it elicits, not only helps prospective employers assess your capacity to work under pressure, however. It also helps them appraise your decision-making, problem-solving, organisational and time management skills.
Basically, what they’re really asking is: ‘Are you the kind of person we want on board when the going gets tough, or will you simply collapse into a useless, quivering heap?’.
How to craft a response
All jobs involve some degree of pressure, whether it’s hitting targets, meeting deadlines or managing multiple tasks at once — some jobs are more stressful than others (think: surgeons or firefighters, for example). In other words, the ability to work under pressure is a skill highly sought after by employers, and it is, therefore, important that you provide an answer that proves you’re perfectly capable of keeping your cool in difficult and stressful situations.
The following tips will help you do that.
1. Talk about how you thrive under pressure
It’s important to remember that your end-goal here is to assure employers you’re perfectly capable of handling things when the going gets tough and that your work performance is not hindered in demanding times. You can do this by focusing on a situation where you were under immense pressure and explaining how you rose to the occasion.
2. Emphasise how you deal with stress
Employers know that work can be stressful from time to time, and they’re perfectly aware of the effects that overworked and overstressed employees have on their companies, which is precisely why they look for candidates who can apply practical methods when under pressure. Your answer should convey your ability to stay focused on the task at hand during a major crisis — and definitely not how stressful situations make you feel!
3. Focus on a time you dealt with pressure from outside forces
Never, ever talk about a time where feeling pressured was a direct result of your own actions. Even if you came through in the end, employers will only view you as a liability to their company, and the chances of hiring you become slim to none.
That said, don’t point fingers, either. Instead, talk about a time where the pressure was a result of something beyond your, or anyone else’s, control — like an increased number of shoppers if you work in retail, for example — and make sure you show how your common sense, initiative, forward thinking and problem-solving skills helped you manage the particular situation.
4. Relate your answer to real-life experiences
That is to say: not fabrications of reality. Your answer should communicate your ability to prioritise and evaluate many different tasks at once, manage your own time effectively, think clearly in a crisis and choose the most cost and time-effective solution, so make sure your answer conveys this.
If you’re new to the world of work and haven’t any experience to reflect on, it’s perfectly alright to talk about a stressful situation in other areas of life, like exam periods or times of family stress.
Whatever you choose to talk about, though, it’s essential that you relate it to the job you’re interviewing for. Talk about how the particular experience can help you succeed in the job, and make sure you don’t get too personal, like mentioning how stressed you were on a first date!
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Check out the following examples for inspiration when the time comes to tell employers how well you’re able to work under pressure.
1. Juggling multiple deadlines
I am able to thrive under multiple deadlines and projects. For example, I once had to work on three large projects that were all due in the same week. However, by prioritising my responsibilities, working effectively with my colleagues and putting in the extra effort, I was able to complete all three projects ahead of time and avoid any unnecessary stress.
2. Managing a constant workload
In my job as a writer/editor, the pressure is always on. There are deadlines to be met and the workload is constant. But, by creating a detailed schedule, I am able to organise my work into small assignments and complete projects effectively and efficiently.
3. Dealing with unsatisfied customers
I constantly work under pressure in my current position and I feel I have become a better, more efficient worker because of it. When I deal with an unsatisfied customer, for example, I’m able to focus on the task at hand rather than feel stressed. I believe that my ability to communicate effectively with customers during these situations helps reduce my own stress as well as any stress the customer may feel.
4. Working on different assignments
Having many different assignments to work on or an upcoming deadline to meet helps me to stay motivated and productive. The solution is not to panic but to remain focused on delivering my very best. This allows me to channel my energy into accomplishing tasks efficiently and without issue.
5. Working in a challenging environment
I believe I deal with pressure well as I’m used to writing long-form essays to strict deadlines at university, as well as organising various society events with limited resources. I’ve found that I enjoy working in a challenging environment and I’m able to produce some of my best work when under pressure.
Mistakes to avoid
Yes, mistakes are meant to be made and, yes, we’re only human, but even the tiniest mistake in an interview can be devastating. However, because we want to see you succeed and land your dream job, here are some things you need to avoid like the plague when answering this particular interview question.
1. Saying you never feel pressured
You’re not perfect, so don’t try to fool the hiring manager into thinking you are — they won’t fall for it. You’ve no doubt felt pressured at least once in your work life, so use it to your advantage.
2. Focusing on how the stress made you feel
It’s a job interview, after all, not a therapy session. The interviewer doesn’t care about your feelings; they’re only interested in knowing whether you’re capable of performing effectively in demanding situations.
3. Talking about a time you put yourself in a stressful situation
This could be, for example, procrastinating when you were meant to be working on an important report. Even if you came through in the end and delivered the report by the specified deadline, you’ll still be viewed as lazy and untrustworthy.
4. Admitting you don’t handle pressure well
We get it: some people just can’t handle pressure and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that — outside the interview room’s walls. Inside, however, it’s a completely different story, and honesty is definitely not the best policy in this particular case. That said, we’re not suggesting you lie your way to a job but, rather, that you focus on how you use particular skills to manage your work effectively.
5. Talking about a time you felt pressured and ultimately failed
Like I mentioned previously, you’re not perfect (nobody is), but that doesn’t mean you should list your every mistake, weakness and failure. After all, the interviewer wants to hear about your successes, not your failures, so make sure you provide an example where you pulled through despite the circumstances.
Regardless how organised and well-planned you are, changes and unexpected events are bound to happen, and this can be particularly stressful and pressure-inducing. Being able to effectively respond to and deal with that kind of pressure, however it presents itself, is an important skill to have in any workplace, which is why hiring managers often pose the question ‘How well do you work under pressure?’ in an interview.
With the tips and examples shared in this guide, you’ll no doubt be better equipped at building an effective response that not only impresses potential employers but also gets you one step closer to the job of your dreams.
Have you ever been asked in an interview how you handle working under pressure? How did you answer the question? Let us know in the comments section below — you might just save someone’s neck and help them land their dream job!
This article is an update of an earlier version published in September 2014.