How to Answer ‘What’s the Most Difficult Decision You Made?’

It’s easy to trip up on this question if you’re not prepared.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of two men having a discussion in an office

When you get the call to schedule a job interview, your first reaction is pure excitement. Then, after taking a deep breath, you realize what that means. Soon, you’ll be grilled with tough questions to make sure you can be successful in the new role.

One of the common interview questions you’ll likely be asked is “Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision”. Your answer to this single question provides significant insight into how you handle challenges, making it easier for a hiring manager to decide if you’re the right fit for the role.

And this quick guide will walk you through the process of delivering a response that will leave a good impression on the interviewer — and get you one step closer to a job offer.

Why hiring managers ask this question

As a member of today’s workforce, it’s guaranteed you will run into challenges.

Before bringing you aboard, hiring managers want to ensure you’re comfortable with the uncomfortable. That means testing your ability to make difficult decisions. And while they’re interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of the tough situation you found yourself in, what’s more telling is how you handled it.

Hiring managers want to glean insight into your problem-solving skills here to understand how you may navigate a similar scenario in your new role.

How to craft a response

As you prepare for your interview and determine how to answer “Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision”, consider incorporating these five tips into your response.

1. Be clear and concise in your explanation

If there’s one interview mistake that will kill your chances of walking away with an offer, it’s being long-winded. How you choose to formulate your answers makes a difference. Interviewers don’t want to hear every detail that went into making the difficult decision. What will keep them engaged is your ability to explain the situation you were in (and its outcome) efficiently.

Remember: it’s your job during an interview to prove you will add value to the team and company. Showing that you can concisely answer a question that requires a backstory will be seen as a precursor to how you will do the same in the new job.

2. Share the story

Speaking of stories, the answer to “Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision” requires one. Storytelling is an important part of effective interviewing, after all.

Briefly set the stage with one or two sentences about the challenge you faced. Then, tell the middle of the story by sharing the decision you made. Again, keep it to a couple sentences. Finally, share the outcome (the end of the story) of that decision. As a bonus, or epilogue, explain the “why” behind your decision-making.

3. Explain why you made the decision

As previously mentioned, it will behoove you to finish your answer with an explanation of why you made your decision. Hiring managers want to understand your thought process.

As you think of the situation to share, make sure the reasoning for that decision was in the best interest of the company or team. Doing so will help the hiring manger feel confident that you’ll be an advocate for those around you, even when faced with hard choices.

4. Describe the outcome of your decision

While interviewers want you to show that you can make a difficult decision, they’re also eager to learn the result of your choice. As you explain what happened after making a difficult decision, try to quantify or measure the outcome if possible. How did your decision affect the team or company? Proving there was a (positive) impactful outcome to your decision will increase the perceived value you will bring to the company.

5. Make your answer relatable and timely

A general interviewing tip to add to your arsenal is to always make your answers relatable and timely. Using an example from your personal life during a professional interview isn’t relatable. Citing a scenario from 10 years ago won’t feel timely. Specifically, when answering this question, be smart about what difficult decision you chose to share.

Consider a recent work-related situation where you were forced to make a difficult decision. Did you have to fire a team member in the last few months? Were you the one to choose a new vendor and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with them? If you can think of an example that’s related to what you’ll be doing if you get this new job, even better.

Example answers

Look at these real-life example answers for describing a difficult time you made a difficult decision. Each one follows the tips mentioned above and is told as a story.

1. Letting go of an employee

I recently had an employee who wasn’t hitting performance expectations. After going through the proper steps of placing her on a performance plan, she and I worked together to try and increase her performance.

Unfortunately, after the 90-day probationary period, she still wasn’t meeting expectations. I had to make the difficult decision to let her go. It was in her best interest and the company’s. Today, she’s happily working in a better-fit role with a different organization, and the woman who took her spot on my team is exceeding performance expectations by 20%.

I made this decision because after putting in enormous effort to help this employee level up, we were losing time and she still wasn’t doing what the role required. I knew she was struggling to keep up and concluded that she wasn’t the right one for the position.

2. Sunsetting a product

Over the last few months, one of our legacy products hasn’t been selling. I completed a thorough market analysis and set sales projections to see if we could save it.

The data proved it wasn’t worth the money and time we were putting into keeping this product on the market. So, just last week, I had to make the difficult decision to sunset it. While it’s disappointing to lose a part of our product line, this decision has already opened several opportunities for new, more innovative options.

I made this decision because the data told the story. After doing my due diligence, I couldn’t let a dying product suck up time and expenses. I’m a forward-thinker, and this product was holding us back from pursuing better opportunities.

3. Adjusting a project timeline

I was the project manager for a high-visibility initiative in my company. During COVID-19, we experienced a shortage of materials which stalled progress.

I was presented with two options: adjust the project timeline or source materials at inflated prices. After analyzing the financial impact of both scenarios, I made the difficult decision to push back the timeline.

I received praise from leadership for stepping up and owning a decision that impacted the entire organization. And my choice offered us more time to perfect other parts of the project as we wait for materials to resurface.

Final thoughts

Your answer to one interview question can answer several others for a hiring manager. Being concise and sharing your decision-making process as a four-part story shows that you can think quickly on your feet and that you’re not scared to make difficult choices.

Explaining your thought process around the decision indicates how your brain works when faced with challenges. Showcasing the outcome of a relatable and timely decision, while proving it was in the favor of the company, will set the bar high for other candidates.

When you’re asked to describe a time you made a difficult decision, you’ll be primed and ready to knock the answer out of the park.

Join the conversation! Got a question you’d like to ask or a tip worth sharing? Let us know in the comments section below.


Originally published on 14 December 2014.