the conflict question

Recent events remind me of one of my favorite hiring tales. I used to ask prospective hires an annoying interview question, one of those open-ended travelogues that journeyed through odd pathways and byways but always ended up in the same cramped room, where two colleagues were locked in irreconcilable conflict, and the proposal of only one could proceed. Depending on the mindset and tenacity of the candidate, this question could take 3 minutes or closer to 30.

Once I was the last interviewer in an extended, multi-day interview slate. Around twenty people had already interviewed the candidate – this was for a small, tightly-knit company, and in such circumstances it’s not unusual (though it may be inadvisable) for nearly all of the company to interview new members of the tribe. So by the time she came to me, she’d already been run a bit ragged.

I proceeded to launch into what I called The Conflict Question. Due to some combination of my mood, her mindset, the weather and wicked chance, this version unfurled into an inquisition taking the better part of an hour. I felt like I learned a lot about her, and was happy to recommend a hire.

I barely made it back to my desk when one of the company stalwarts stormed up to me and dragged me to an empty conference room. Although I held a senior position, I hadn’t been with the company very long, and this guy held considerably greater history and moral authority (quite correctly and deservedly, in my view).

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he hissed.


“We have a critical hire to fill here, we found this amazing candidate. She’s been interviewing for days and everybody loves her. Every single person gave her rave reviews. She gets to you, the very last interview – more of a formality than anything – and now she doesn’t want to work here. She says if assholes like you are in senior management, this can’t be the kind of place she’d like to work!”

“What?! Uh ….” My mind raced through the interview, playing it back and forth in my head like the Zapruder film. What did I do? What did I say? Admittedly the interview did get a little strained, spending the bulk of time on a question whose very essence is about conflict. Not infrequently, the course of the question presses conflict so extensively that it can be said to generate real conflict as well. I didn’t think I’d crossed any kind of line, but then again if I had it wouldn’t be the first (or the last) time I’d done so without realizing it.

I asked frantic questions about what she said about the interview and whether there was any chance of saving the hire. My colleague furiously insisted she was only reacting appropriately to my unforgivable boorishness. His red-faced anger thrashed me like an invisible whip … and then I saw that this was the strangest thing of all. I’d always admired his grace under pressure – I had watched him work with grim calm through disastrous crises and deplorable failures. He was, as far as I knew then, an obdurate, utterly reliable, improbably emotionless rock of a man.

“Whoa, whoa, waitaminute,” I said. “Are you fucking her? Or trying to?”

The passion drained from his face. It wasn’t the passion of anger, as I thought, but passion itself. He took a moment to gather himself, drew in a deep breath, and finally hung his head as he answered, simply and plainly: “Yes. Yes I am.”

“Ok. Now get the fuck out of my office,” I said, which was a weird thing to say as we were standing in a conference room and I had no office. “Now wait – just so you know – I’ll fix this, I’ll go make nice with her and we’ll bring her on. But I don’t think my interview was wrong, and I don’t think what I found is wrong: she doesn’t like conflict, especially when she thinks she should be walking into a friendly situation. I might be an asshole, but her job might sometimes require making assholes do good work, so that’s something you’ll have to deal with – as her boyfriend, perhaps, but not in any role that could possibly be supervisory. So thanks for letting me know.”

We hired her. She was great. She wasn’t so bad at handling conflict (and assholes), but I’m pretty sure she didn’t like it. And she certainly was never put into a conflict of interest with her romantic relationship, because everyone was transparent from the start. Their relationship with each other has long outlasted any of ours with the company, and is certain to outlast the company itself. At the end, there was nothing left of real or imagined conflict, nothing but a funny story.

It’s all so easy when the truth is out at the beginning.

2 thoughts on “the conflict question

  1. Loved this hiring story… i’m interested to learn why the question becomes contentious…. isn’t marriage just a series of issues were partners are locked in a (often important) dispute and only one (at a time) can win?



    1. I think the question is contentious because it allows the candidate to go a considerable way down a likely path, and then cuts off the path. The core of the question asks, “What do you do when you and a colleague do not agree?” Many candidates spend a significant amount of time outlining various dispute resolution techniques. I’m always interested to hear about these, but then the question returns to, “Ok, you tried that and it doesn’t work. Now what?” So that is frustrating – I think some candidates feel, “Why did you make me describe this technique if in the end you were just going to tell me it doesn’t work? You could have just told me that at the start! Asshole.”

      The comparison to marriage is interesting … at first I wanted to say it’s not the same at all, but I’m not so sure. Ultimately, the “most correct answer” to The Conflict Question is that you must give up in order for the company to move on: making the wrong choice is only the second worst thing that could happen to the company; the worst thing would be making no choice at all. But being able to let go of your convictions requires a certain amount of dispassion, and willingness to let the company fail. When you are locked in a conflict in marriage, giving up with dispassion is probably not the best choice, and willingness to let the marriage fail is probably not the best attitude. But I’m just guessing here, as I am more of an expert on companies than I am on marriages. 😉


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