"Tell me about a time you had conflict" for academics
May 28, 2019 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm leaving academia after more than 10 years in one stable, tenure-track, full-time job. I found some things to apply for but I'm dreading interviewing, specifically/especially "tell me about a time you had a conflict." I feel like this hasn't really been a thing in my career and I'm really at a loss to come up with a conflict example I can use. Please help me by A) Giving examples of interview-suitable conflict in academia and B) Telling me what the characteristics of a good conflict story are.

Other than the whole I-think-I-should-still-work-here-and-they-don't thing, I haven't had much conflict. I don't think that one is appropriate to use, especially since I'm "losing" it. Basically in my job if you don't want to deal with a colleague, you don't have to. We don't collaborate. We don't depend on each other. We each do our own thing, unless we choose to do it together. So really there's not much cause for conflict.

I suppose I've had conflict with students who want their grades raised. Then I either did or didn't. But I'm not sure that's conflict if I basically hold all the power and just decide stuff. I've also had students with academic dishonesty issues. But I'm not sure that's conflict. All I do is turn them over to that office.

If you're in academic, can you help me brainstorm by telling me about conflicts you've had?

Whether you're in academia or not, what makes for a good conflict to choose? I know about the STAR thing. I'm not asking how to tell the story, but rather what kind of story to pick (i.e. obviously not one where it's my fault and it somehow ends with everyone bitter and resentful, but beyond that, what's a good kind of conflict to use)?

I had one interview before and I just hoped this question wouldn't come up and it did and I totally flopped it by rambling on about how students want higher grades. I've applied for a job I really want and I want to be more prepared this time. This job and any others I might apply for are non-academic and not business jobs (i.e. public organizations like schools, universities, government, non-profits, think tanks, etc.) I would also apply for "business" jobs if I saw something appropriate, but those will likely be less common.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever proposed a course and been denied? Or had some sort of curriculum issue? Things like that could be good. Showing that you believed in what you were doing but were able to come to some sort of satisfactory conclusion without ... you know ... yelling or fisticuffs or whatnot would be good.
posted by wellred at 12:47 PM on May 28, 2019

I'm not an academic, but my ex is. You've surely had conflict in your current location, you just might not think of it as such, including your examples with students. I'd suggest you think of conflict as something where someone wants something and you decide whether to give it to them or not, or reach some compromise? Your described method of dealing with the student conflict is "I use the absolute authority I have and ignore their concerns if I feel like it".

Maybe you're in a miraculous department where there is no office politics whatsoever, but I find that unlikely. Have you taken over a class from older faculty who wanted it taught a different way than you did? Everyone in your department has the same vision for the future of said department? You didn't negotiate anything at all when you got the position?
posted by LionIndex at 12:50 PM on May 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think the conflicts you mention would be fine examples, and how you handled them seems appropriate. You may hold all the power, but engaging ethically in that situation, treating the student as a human being, maintaining integrity, understanding the other perspective, and so forth are all potential ways you demonstrate your ability to deal with conflict in those situations but also other potential situations.
posted by papayaninja at 12:50 PM on May 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

But I'm not sure that's conflict if I basically hold all the power and just decide stuff.

I actually think this makes for a good conflict story: what do you do when you have all the power to make the other party feel heard? How do you negotiate this situation so that you can both walk away from the table feeling somewhat satisfied? When you have all the power in a situation, how do you help the other party come to peace with a decision?

Similarly, you can have a good conflict story when you have none of the power in a situation, for example if you’ve been overruled by a higher-up. In the wake of that decision, how did you work through it or think outside the box to shape a “win-win” from what might feel like a win-lose situation?

When people ask about conflict at work, I think they’re looking for examples of how you work with others, how you deal with rejection, how you handle power, and how you can come up with creative solutions. You can make any conflict into an interview story if you can show that you used the situation you had to make things better in some way (and if you triumphed over some kind of adversity, even better).
posted by sallybrown at 12:53 PM on May 28, 2019 [15 favorites]

Have you googled around for sources that will tell you why people ask these questions? I don't have one at my fingertips right now, but I'm confident that this question isn't really supposed to show that you are a dynamite conflict-solver so much as it's supposed to show how you view your previous employer/colleagues - they're fishing around to see if you talk about how you just hated the way people hogged the stapler, or how you went to the boss over every little thing.

A good answer starts out with "I didn't actually have that much conflict with colleagues" and then puts a positive face on any "conflict" that you actually discuss.

The last time I had to answer this question, I talked about how I worked with colleagues to develop a [thing...I can't even remember what it was] and the strategies that I used to help the group come to an agreement.

Ideally, your "conflict" story will have some relationship to the type of job you're applying for - ie, if you were applying to be a copywriter, your conflict might be a time when you had to work with someone to create an internal standard for comma use. This means you may need several stories.

Did you ever do committee work? Did you ever need to advocate for yourself to get access to a resource? If you literally had no conflicts at work, focus on a collaboration. If you don't have one to describe at work, do you have one from volunteer work?

You can reach back pretty far if the story is good enough and you can spin it so that it says something about Your Brand (I know.) Did you have a "conflict" about something during your PhD?

Remember to create a rounded story - the conflict you describe should:

1. Illustrate that you are a team player who doesn't say weird, mean things about former co-workers (easy)
2. Show something about your values as an employee (harder)
3. Give an example of your thinking (probably the least important aspect)

So you want to start out with, "I haven't had any real conflicts at work, but I did need to [do a value-reflecting thing] when I was [working with colleagues to do a thing]. We had to balance [things] and there were limited [other things]. So what I did was [on brand thing like "listening actively to all participants or meeting individually with stakeholders or preparing a really good report, etc etc] and this [solved the problem in some way]. I strongly believe in [doing the on-brand thing] when I work with colleagues because [it leads to Fantastic Outcome That Reflects Values!]
posted by Frowner at 12:54 PM on May 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think the word "conflict" might be making you limit the examples you pick necessarily - in this situation, "mild disagreement that was cordially resolved" is totally fine. Can you think of a time when you worked on a collaborative project with someone and you had different ideas of how to go forward which you then resolved? (If you really can't, I think your other examples are perfectly fine.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:56 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you were in a journal discipline, the peer-review process is inherently and highly conflictual.

And while I have never hired outside of academia, it seems to me from a distance that the story of "I had this great idea and Reviewer Two made two good suggestions and 57 obscenely terrible ones so I... and the editor... " is not so very different from a conflict between you and Park from OtherDepartment about Whatever taking place under the aegis of the VP for Widgets.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:00 PM on May 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

These questions basically mean "give me insight into your interpersonal relationship skills at work." How do you deal with people when there's a problem to be solved? It could be people who stand in your way on something; or people who come to you for something; or anyone who has an interest that's adverse to yours in any way.

Your example about a student wanting a grade raised might be fine. If the student brought you new information and you based a change decision on that, that makes sense - it would show you prioritizing accuracy and fairness. Or if a student did not deserve a better grade, and you stuck to your guns because you double checked your work and were satisfied it was correct and that to change it would be unfair to other students, that would be fine.

I'll give you two examples that stick in my memory after years of interviewing people. These were otherwise similar candidates working in office settings.

a. "I had taken a vacation and my co-workers had done my work while I was gone, and one of them wound up mad at me and feeling really hard done by because she'd had to pick up my slack. I heard through the grapevine she was mad at me and saying mean things about me. So I talked to her privately, I didn't say anything about what I'd heard, I just told her how much I appreciated everything she'd done, and I took her out to lunch as a thank-you. We had a nice lunch and I think things were ok after that."

b. "when I was out of the office one day, my boss went through my desk. He was looking for some stuff he needed. I felt like my privacy was really violated by that, so I complained to HR."

Example a demonstrated a candidate with humility, big-picture thinking and a knack for de-escalating drama. Example b showed the opposite.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:09 PM on May 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

That question is about your problem solving technique, not your emotional response to conflict.

(As a trophy spouse of an academic -- how could you possibly not have experienced at least department level challenges in this age of austerity? You all never had any conflict over doing annoying or challenging service role? Never had to decide on the course direction of your department? Never had to hash out teaching schedules for the upcoming academic year? Every academic I know is a walking case of neurotic conflict.)

When you pick your interview story, just focus on some situation where you worked with someone else - your chair, your Dean, some committee - to solve a challenging problem. Show your enthusiasm for improvement, show your ability to collaborate, show your clever discovery of a solution.
posted by RajahKing at 1:11 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

We ask this question, and we're looking for evidence of interpersonal skills, not a entertaining story. Entertaining stories are often a bad sign because it points to you being high drama. One person said, "Well, I get passionate about things but it's not like I flip the table or anything," and that was a big red flag that they didn't play well with others. We recently had a candidate who was fresh off their bachelors and thus didn't have a lot of professional experience to draw on. They talked about their internship with one other person, and how they'd try to work it out design disagreements amongst themselves and defer to a senior person when needed. They presented it as a very low-conflict situation, and we really liked him.

We interview PhDs a lot for a particular position that is hard to fill and attracts some...characters. Most of the time, candidates for that position will talk about a disagreement they had with some idiotic superior who didn't know what they were talking about. However, tI was just in one such interview last week, and the candidate told us about a time he realized the other person was right, and there was much rejoicing on our end (it was a phone interview, one of our interviewers said he literally threw his hands up in the air in a hallelujah moment).

Heck, if a candidate told me a story where the conflict was their fault but they handled it professionally and learned from it, that would reflect well on them -- it shows they're honest, humble, and capable of growth. (Assuming the root cause was reasonable, of course.)
posted by natabat at 1:27 PM on May 28, 2019 [14 favorites]

I've also seen this question used as a screening tool for whether someone can follow the chain of command (or whether they escalate every minor disagreement to the highest possible level).
posted by wearyaswater at 1:31 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think you can shift your experience of being in a place where conflict avoidance was the preferred tactic in your department into a story like:

For the past few years I've worked in an environment where people avoided conflict and while that seems like it would be great it really meant that people harbored resentments and issues didn't get resolved. What I learned from this experience is that when there are issues or disagreements that arise at work they should be handled like this...

And then list three things strategies/actions that you think are important to fostering a workplace where disagreements are handled respectfully and solutions are found. The point of this question is that you can demonstrate that you will act like a calm adult in the face of interpersonal conflict and seek to resolve issues in a respectful manner - not yell, throw tantrums, become a toxic employee who spreads gossip and rumor, undermines people you disagree with.
posted by brookeb at 1:41 PM on May 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've interviewed a lot of people, albeit not in academia but in tech. This is question is just hygiene to screen out people who might be axe murderers. Very occasionally, someone tells a story that is them happily revenging themselves on a colleague or other wildly inappropriate behaviour, and then you don't hire them. But otherwise I just go eh, no red flags here. Don't worry or overthink this one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:19 PM on May 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Agree with others that this is a "fishing for red flags" type of question and a mundane response like your students complaining about grades is fine. A response I've given in the past was talking about when I got caught in the middle of a conflict between two lead investigators on a project, where my role was senior scientist but also de facto project manager. My boss was one of the lead investigators, but the other had a much larger role in the project, and got offended by my boss early on. I basically had to smooth things over without throwing my boss under the bus but making sure the project could move forward. It wasn't easy but I managed and we completed the project successfully with everyone on good terms at the end.
Oh and I cannot envision an academic role without conflict; I am sure you've had to deal with institutional politics at the very least!
posted by emd3737 at 2:39 PM on May 28, 2019

Yeah, I think your example of students wanting higher grades sounds like a good one. You can show you’re aware that you ultimately hold the power in that situation, but you don’t want to wield it for the sake of it, so you always listen to them and give their point due consideration. You know you also have a responsibility to their peers that you have to weigh and can’t give them special treatment. If they’re angry or aggressive you cope by doing a,b,c. But even if you can’t meet their request, you want them to feel heard and you do that by doing x,y,z.

It shows you have the strength and character to withstand low-level conflict (hearing them out) if it results in more harmonious relationships long term, rather than just being inflexible and instantly wielding your power by refusing to listen to them. Maybe come up with a specific example to talk about rather than just the general principle.
posted by penguin pie at 2:45 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

As an interviewer, when I am asking a conflict question, I am looking for people who care enough to advocate for their point of view but also know how to listen and collaborate to bring things to an amenable conclusion. I'm looking for people who know how to appeal to shared values between stakeholders and tie those to organizational values. I'm interested in people who are able to change their minds given evidence and who know how to move forward when their point of view doesn't prevail. I'm interested in people who know how to use chains of command appropriately and understand division of responsibility and authority.

To me, the story I am looking for is generally about two people who have different ideas about how to approach something where both possibilities are valid and possible though the two people may prioritize different things. If I am interviewing a person in academia, I will be listening to see that the person understands how corporate culture is different from academic culture. I'm also very interested in outcomes where a process was created or changed to prevent future conflicts.

I should add that I usually approach this as as: "Tell me about the time when you and someone else disagreed about how to approach a project or a problem and how you worked it out." and then I also usually ask "Tell me about a time you or someone else made a mistake and how you fixed it."
posted by vunder at 2:58 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I left academia immediately after the PhD and mine was something about arguing with other TAs and the professor about how a midterm should be graded (everyone grades their own students vs one person grades question 1, one person question 2, etc). I think we did one for the first midterm and another for the second (no idea if there was a third anymore), which was probably the worst choice. I figured it was a reasonable choice because a) I could talk about attempting to build consensus, b) I could talk about being swayed by or at least understanding the arguments of people who disagreed with me and c) I didn't "win".
posted by hoyland at 3:42 PM on May 28, 2019

Have you ever provided conflict resolution due to students getting heated during class discussions? I spend a fair amount of time teaching students how to work well together, have productive discussions despite differing opinions, etc.
posted by jenquat at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2019

I agree 180% with sallybrown. What you do when you have all the power or no power says way more about you than what you do with equals. When you have all the power, do you listen, try to find out the root of the disagreement, and come up with an answer that satisfies the other person? (or at least satisfies them that they were heard and their needs are important, even if they didn't "win" this time). When you have none of the power, do you give up too easily? Sabotage and be passive-aggressive? Flame out angrily?

I like to say, when I find myself disagreeing with someone, 90% of the time it's one of two things. (1) I know something they don't know, or (2) they know something I don't know. Tell a story of how you talked this out, each discovered the thing the other didn't know, and found a way for both people to be happy. If you don't have any at work, tell one from your personal life (but not in a "too much information, dude" way; you can sanitize and generalize some details.

I mean really, you never have any conflict? You never wanted the same office someone else wanted? You always had as much money as you thought you needed? No parking issues? It doesn't have to be a Big Academic Problem.

When I ask that question, that's what I'm looking for as a normal/acceptable answer, no red flags. I'll tell you what gets bonus points from me, though, in the "what did you learn from that" portion: non-absolutes. If you learned that the best way is always to talk it out, or always stick to your guns, always this or always that, you're not at "wow, outstanding answer" yet. Sometimes the answer actually is (in this particular case, in these circumstances) to steamroll over opposition. Sometimes it's to choose a different hill to make your stand when your energy will achieve the goal better. They're all tools to be used at the right time. You ideally should have a story about when you've done each thing successfully. Or for the one story you have, elaborate a bit about how you *considered* doing the other thing, and why you didn't think that would work. Intentionality of approach. That's the "wow" answer.
posted by ctmf at 4:41 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, I could describe any of those approaches with good or bad connotations. Example: steamrolling over opposition. Good: Persistent, unwavering on principle, not sidetracked by obstacles, not afraid to step on some toes when necessary. Bad: bully, will piss off all my other employees and destroy my team cohesion. Maybe the good features are what I'm looking for right now for my team, maybe I have too much of the bad and do not want. You can't overthink it and try to guess what they want to hear.
posted by ctmf at 4:49 PM on May 28, 2019

Also the people saying "I think this question is about..." are ALL correct. That's why even though it's an annoying cliche, and it's not like it's a surprise, so you can prepare, it's STILL a good question.
posted by ctmf at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2019

This is not a question that will ever have a good answer, much like "tell me about your greatest weakness? Or a time you made a mistake?"

Were there no times that you ran into a political conflict at the school? With your colleagues or administratively? With your department head? I would look for an answer where compromise was reached, growth was achieved, and everyone went on with life. We disagreed. We talked it out. We changed it so we it could work for both of us.
posted by xammerboy at 10:37 PM on May 28, 2019

At least once in the interview you can fudge an answer like this. So for this question, you just say, well I cant really think of any example of where I had a conflict. However if I did, I would.....
posted by gregjunior at 7:58 AM on May 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

PhD student supervision (disagreement about research approach, publications/progress vs. freedom/education, interpersonal/group disagreements, readiness to defend/graduate), resource allocation (funding, teaching load, TA resources, rooms/lab space, service tasks, admin support), committee work (recruitment, conferences, PhD, strategic development, study programs, organizational change, funding proposal evaluations, course offerings, meeting agenda, who gets to talk/decide), co-authoring (deadlines, who does what, research direction, writing, where to publish), system (email vs. slack, canvas vs. blackboard, synchronous or asynchronous communication). For a start.
posted by meijusa at 9:04 AM on May 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I interview job candidates, most of whom are leaving (lab) academia for industry. Conflict doesn't have to mean a big fight, and in fact I have changed this a bit to say "conflict or disagreement" because so many people interpreted "conflict" to mean a big fight and said they didn't have any conflict. EVERYONE has some conflict. The grade example is fine. So is someone wanting to meet outside of your office hours, disagreements about use of equipment, disagreements (spoken or not) about how to handle the messes left in the break area, disagreements about who is going to teach that course, disagreements about whose names will go on that paper (and in what order), questions about whether you'll hire that student again next summer, and a zillion other things that happen when people share space and resources. Several other possible sources of conflict/disagreement have been suggested by others upthread.

When I ask this question I want to know ... well, how people handle disagreements, because they're part of life and are going to happen in this job too. Do you give in? Do you pull rank? Do you quietly agree and then grumble to other people? Do you agree but then undermine whatever you agreed to? Do you make a point of trying to understand where the other person is coming from and try to figure out something that works for both you and the other person? Do you avoid or stop talking to the person who has the other opinion, or try to maintain a relationship with them? Not saying you in particular actually do any of these - they're just examples of some of the ways people handle disagreements.

(Also, depending on the specifics I don't necessarily think it's terrible if in the end it's your "fault," though I'm not sure that fault really comes into most scenarios about disagreements. People make mistakes - what matters is how they handle them.)
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:13 PM on May 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

And good luck with the interview!
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:18 PM on May 29, 2019

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