21 January, 2019
By Mike Simpson
When it comes right down to it, interviews are phenomenally stressful.
You’re potentially competing with hundreds, if not thousands of other qualified applicants for the position. The question is, how do you handle stress in that situation?
You’re meeting with people you’ve never met before in, answering questions that are specifically designed to psychologically analyze you, and to make matters worse, odds are you’re wearing clothes you’re not totally comfortable in.
Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon, right?
Hopefully you’re handling all this pressure gracefully and are answering all the questions with a smile, looking the interviewer in the eye and remembering your STAR method for answering behavioral interview questions (which, if you didn’t know, are some of the most stress-inducing questions you could be asked).
So, when an interviewer asks you “How do you handle stress,” your first response might be to laugh bitterly, open your arms up wide and respond with “You tell me! I’m here, aren’t I?”
Of course, you’re smarter than that and while the above scenario is so tempting, there are much better ways to answer this question, and I guarantee that none of them use sarcasm.
But before we get to how to answer the question, we need to look at why the interviewer is asking it in the first place.
While it might feel as though this question is an attempt by the interviewer to play on your already frazzled nerves, there’s a very good reason they’re asking you how you handle stress.
Work is stressful and regardless of what your job is, at some point in everyone’s life, a little stress (or a lot, depending) is going to come your way and an employer wants to know if you’re the kind of person who is going to be able to handle that stress professionally, or if you’re going to end up crumbling like a stale cookie.
How NOT to Answer “How Do You Handle Stress?”
“Stress? Never experienced it.”
As we said, an interviewer wants to hire someone they know will be reliable when things get tough but playing the emotionless robot card isn’t going to win you any points.
Besides, everyone experiences stress, so saying you don’t just means you’re lying and nobody wants to hire a liar.
“Stress just motivates me to work harder.”
While this might seem like the right answer, it’s not. Hiring someone who is convinced they need to solve every problem themselves means they might not realize at some point that their problem is too big to handle alone.
A lone wolf employee might end up waiting too long to bring in additional help resulting in a problem that could have been solved much earlier and cheaper blowing up into something much bigger and much more expensive.
“I remove myself from the situation, take time to look at it from all angles, and then attack whatever is causing me stress in the most efficient way.”
Another ‘sounds like it should be right…but it’s not!’ answer.
In this case, you’re telling the hiring manager that when things get tough…you leave. And yes, we know you said you come back after you’ve formulated your plan of attack, but still…we can’t get past the part where you walk away for an unknown amount of time.
“Dude, I don’t know about you, but I like to unwind by grabbing a beer and just feeling the mellow wash over me after work.”
All we’re going to say is…there’s a thing called oversharing.
Ultimately an employer isn’t going to be interested in a potential hire who they think might react negatively in a stressful situation. Beyond just our previous examples of the robot, the lone wolf, the disappearing employee and the Dude, hiring managers are going to avoid anyone who handles stress in a negative way including:
The angry stresser: When stressed out, this employee gets angry and takes it out on everyone around them.
The sad sack: This employee is the opposite of the angry stresser. Instead of anger, they descend into depression, even to the point of full withdrawal.
The shut-down: Stress for this employee is a bit like hitting the power button. A shut down employee does just that…they shut down and are unable to do anything to alleviate the stress or the situation causing the stress.
The delegator: When stressed out, this employee would rather pass those stressful tasks off onto others. While delegation is an important part of any solid team, foisting your problems off on others won’t win you any points.
Top 5 Tips For Answering the Question
- Start with an example story: Just telling the hiring manager how you handle stress isn’t enough. They want to hear you apply this to a past scenario.
- Focus on positive examples: The last thing an interviewer wants to hear is about a time you were stressed because of something you did that was irresponsible or unprofessional, especially if the situation was completely avoidable.
- Focus on what you did, not on how you felt: The interviewer wants to know how you handled yourself and what you did to mitigate the situation. Focus on your actions and don’t weigh down the example with how stressed you were feeling.
- Highlight the skills you used: Dealing with stress in a healthy and positive way can help you learn and hone skills an employer will see as valuable. Talk about things like time management, organization, prioritization, and attention to detail. (Here is a handy list of soft skills that you can focus on.)
- Tailor your example: This one should be obvious. Make sure you’re sharing a story that relates to the job you’re applying for. (If it’s not obvious to you, you probably need to brush up on our Tailoring Method… check out this article to get a quick tutorial.)
3 Example Answers:
For an Entry-Level Position
Management Level Position
Executive Level Position:
Putting It All Together
Every job is going to have some stress involved, and everyone ends up getting a little stressed out every now and again. Part of what makes you the perfect candidate and will help set you apart from other job seekers is understanding how to leverage that stress to your advantage. By not letting tough situations shut you down and still being able to complete tasks to the best of your ability regardless of the stress you’re under, you’re showing a hiring manager that you’re a professional and ultimately…the best candidate for the job.
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