Emotions have no place in an effective management, and a great manager is never going to be loved by everyone in the company. They may actually hear their share of bad words, and deal with many complaints, simply because they will have to make some unpopular decisions. Sure enough, the employees affected by these decisions will perceive the situation in a different light. They will blame the manager, not realizing that the manager had no other option, unless they wanted to see themselves leaving the company at the end of the next quarter. It is a tricky situation indeed, for everyone involved, and that’s why hiring managers in many Fortune 500 corporations will ask you the question, in any managerial job interview. They may make it even a bit more difficult, adding couple of extra questions, putting it this way: “Describe a time you made an unpopular decision. How did you handle the feedback? How would you have handled the situation differently?”

Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers. I included both safe bets and unconventional answers on my list. Hopefully at least one will resonate with you, and with the message you want to convey to the hiring managers. Do not forget to read also my notes below the list of answers, where I explain some important nuances of this tricky interview question.

 

7 sample answers to “Tell me about a time when you were forced to make an unpopular decision” interview question

  1. I recall such a situation from my last job. Leading a project, I had a great team of people in place. We had an excellent chemistry in the team, and people supported each other. We were progressing great, but certain material costs were higher than expected, and the executives decided against exceeding the budget for the project. I had only two options–either terminating contract of one of the team members–perhaps trying to relocate them elsewhere, or ending up with an unfinished project, simply because we’d not have funds to see it through. Needless to say, I knew that the team would hate seeing one member go. But I had no other option, unless I wanted to fail with the project. So I did it, I terminated the contract of one the analysts, and actually arranged a place for them in another team within the company. Needless to say, the remaining team members were not happy with my solution. But I explained them the situation, and I would do the same thing again. We always have to keep company goals on the top of the list of our priorities, and decide accordingly.
  2. In my last managerial job I was forced to cut the salaries by 10% across the team, simply because the pandemic hit us hard, and we had no other option. As you can imagine, I met with a lot of opposition, and two employees actually decided to leave the company. But I did not back up, I saw it through, and eventually managed to keep the business afloat, at least for the time being. Eventually more cuts were necessary and I also ended without the job. That’s how it goes, however, and I do not want to dwell on the past.
  3. This is my first job application, and I have not experienced such a situation in the past. However, I know that a good manager is Mr. Productive, and not Mr. Popular. Sure enough, I will have to make decisions my subordinates won’t like, and I can assure you that I am ready to make such decisions, without a blink of an eye. Emotions have no place in the work of a great manager, and I aspire to become a great one.
  4. I was never forced to make unpopular decisions. But I made some out of my free will, in my last managerial job with Siemens. You know, I had my goals, the expectations of the managers, I knew what I was supposed to achieve in the branch I led. And though people are the most important asset for every business, you cannot really make decisions following their wishes. Sure, they should have their word, and it is also important to explain things to the people. But shareholders decide at the end, and a manager has no other option than doing what’s necessary to meet the quarterly and yearly targets. If they did anything else, they would lose their job. But I never really felt that I was forced to do anything. I was on the same page with the executives, and did what I could do meet their expectations. I would not handle it differently, even if I had a chance to turn back the clock.
  5. It is one unpopular decision after another in the job of claims adjuster. People are never quite satisfied with our decisions. They always want to get more money back, more coverage, new car, new house, and so on. And sure enough, they do not hesitating expressing their thoughts. But I had my rules I had to follow, with each and every insurance claim. That was my Bible, not the opinion of the insured party, not the difficult feedback I had to handle. To sum it up, you can be sure I do not care about the opinion of the others. I will simply stick to the rules, do my job, and make unpopular decision anytime it is necessary. At the same time, however, I will try to stay courteous and provide excellent customer service. But the polices I have to comply with in my work will always have the first priority.
  6. Perhaps the most unpopular decision I made was dropping out of college. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much support from either my parents or my friends. Everyone wanted me to become a lawyer, to have a safety net, to earn big, and whatever. But after two years of studies, I understood it wasn’t my way. At the end of the day, you cannot be someone else, unless you want be unhappy in life. So I dropped from the college, pursued my dreams (as you can see on my resume), and my journey took me all the way to this interview with you.
  7. Probably the most unpopular decision I had to make was leaving my last job. You know, I belonged to an excellent team. I enjoyed the time with my colleagues immensely. And I also feel that I did a great job for the company. But the workload was just too heavy, and the managers unrelenting. I have two kids, a husband, and I didn’t want to spend 80+ hours working each week. I needed a better work-life balance. Hence I decided to quit, which was an unpopular decision with everyone in the company, and also a tough one to make for me. At the end of the day, however, I do not think I had another option, unless I wanted to face a burnout and a possibility of a divorce…

 

Show them that you have clear priorities as a manager

Perhaps the most important thing is demonstrating that you decide according to your goals (numbers you try to achieve as a manager), and not according to the wishes and preferences of people you manage. That’s the main point here really.

At the same time, however, you should not present yourself as a ruthless manager, who doesn’t care a bit about the feedback of their subordinates. Sure, you’ll hear them out, you will look for options, you will try to explain things to them. At the end of the day, however, you will make the best decision for the company, regardless of whether the people working under you like it or not.

* Special Tip: This isn’t the only difficult question you will face while interviewing for any decent job. You will face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, dealing with ambiguity, and other tricky scenarios that happen in the workplace. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 31 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!

You do not have to limit yourself with work

Perhaps this is your first job application for a managerial role. Or you’ve worked as a manager before, but on a low scale, with low-level of responsibility, and haven’t had a chance to make some significant decisions that would have an impact on your colleagues.

In such a case, you can talk about a situation from your personal life, or from your studies. Maybe you left a boyfriend (or a fiancee) your family liked a lot, and didn’t want you to leave. Or you made some drastic changes to your diet, lifestyle, something your circles found hard to bear with.

All these situations will work great in an interview, as long as they help you demonstrate that you do not care too much about what the others think about your actions. Focusing on your goal, you do not mind making unpopular decisions. That’s what they want to hear from you in an interview…

 

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:

Matthew Chulaw
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