Interview Questions: how to answer "What irritates you about colleagues?"

By: Robert Gaines

Now here’s an interesting question to answer! Do you spill the beans on co-workers and vent your spleen about what you’ve had to put up with for the last few years? Or do you take a deep breath and take a more measured approach?

The important thing to realise about this type of question is that the interviewer isn’t actually interested in hearing tales about other people, they want to understand how you deal with challenging personalities or behaviour in the work environment. The number one rule, then, is to stay professional when you respond to the question and avoid being negative. Negativity will say far more about you than it will about the person you’re describing. You may come across as petty or intractable yourself, and will serve only to cast doubt in the interviewer’s mind.

Be prepared to generalise about colleagues and situations. You don’t have to completely whitewash the truth – after all, rarely can anyone say that there is absolutely nothing about colleagues that is annoying – but don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of focusing on the shortcomings of a particular colleague, it may sound too personal, petty and childish. Different things annoy different people – the sound of someone loudly slurping their coffee throughout a meeting may be annoying but it’s not what you want to be discussing! The interviewer is assessing how well you get along with others, how you define ‘irritating’ or ‘annoying’ and your levels of tolerance.

It’s far better to acknowledge that everyone is different, that you’ve worked with many diverse characters and that it’s inevitable some will present greater challenges than others. Concentrate on describing your professional attitude to such challenges, how you have successfully overcome issues in the workplace to ensure that there is no compromise to performance. By showing that you are tolerant, can exercise patience, and even find solutions, you’ll be putting a positive spin on the situation and making yourself look good.

So putting to one side the coffee slurper, the office gossip and the person in another department who takes loads of duvet days, think about things that will reflect well on you as a professional. Good general statements might include frustration about colleagues who don’t fully contribute to a team. If you can describe a way in which you helped to resolve this and managed to strengthen the way in which the team worked, you will be demonstrating both good interpersonal skills and commitment to collaboration and team working, which will in turn improve your case as a good candidate. Likewise, being prepared to handle a situation, rather than allowing resentment to grow and possibly impact on your own performance, will also demonstrate strength and resolve.

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