There are five very common generic questions which crop up in
virtually every interview. They relate to:
• being a good team player;
• planning and organising your work effectively;
• good interpersonal communication;
• coping with change in the workplace;
• providing effective customer service (including internal customers).
Using the four steps, this chapter poses the questions about these
issues and suggests possible responses.
The importance of the ‘big five’ questions
The skills listed above are vital to most jobs. It is hard to think of
a job in which all five do not come into play at one stage or another,
and impossible to think of a job in which at least one of them is
not relevant. For this reason, the ‘big five’ actually constitute hundreds
of interview questions.
Once you’ve learned how to answer the ‘big five’ questions, you
will be able to respond to many other questions because there is a
great deal of overlap amongst them. For example, if you can answer
the basic question, ‘What makes you a good team player?’ you should
also be able to respond to a range of similar team player questions,
• How do you like working in a team?
• Do you consider yourself a good team player?
• Describe your ideal team.
• What does it take to be an effective team player?
However, be aware that, while learning how to respond to one
generic question allows you to answer many similar questions, this
does not mean you will be able to answer every conceivable question
asked. It’s up to you to be diligent and look for questions within
the genre that may be slightly different or unexpected.
Given the common nature of the above skills, they will be treated
as if they have been performed before.
Answering a ‘team player’ question
Most people work in teams. Even people who appear to work on
their own often have to interact with others in the organisation,
thus creating one or more loosely formed teams. Some teams need
to work closely together, others less so; some teams work together
all the time, whereas others meet only periodically. The important
point is that employers rely heavily on the smooth functioning of
their teams and are keen to hire effective team players. Here are
some examples of team player questions:
• What makes you a good team player?
• How do you find working in a team?
• Do you prefer working alone or in a team? Why?
• What do you dislike about working in a team?
• What would you do if one of your colleagues was not pulling
• Describe your ideal team.
• Can you give us examples of what you’ve done to ensure that
your role in a team was a positive one?
• How would you handle a team member who was loud and
aggressive at team meetings and dominated proceedings by
Now let’s use the four steps to prepare the information needed
to respond to ‘team player’ questions:
Table 8.1 Being an effective team player
What I’ve done to
ensure the duties
listed under step 1
• Acknowledging others’
• Helping colleagues
when they’ve run into
• Sharing important
information and know-
• Avoiding anti-social
behaviours such as
discussion or shouting
• Joining a team in which
problems, I suggested a
different meeting format
Working in the
payroll team, we
• Halved pay errors
within two months of
• Contributed to
amongst team members
• Learned a great deal
about working in payroll,
including how to operate
Here’s a sample interview question and a possible response.
Question: Are you a good team player? Can you give us examples
of you demonstrating team player capabilities?
Yes, I consider myself to be an effective team player. In my
previous job I was part of a team of four people who were
responsible for paying the salaries, including overtime and
bonuses, of approximately 2000 employees (step 3: context).
When I first started work in the team, there were communi-
cation problems between several team members. As well as
affecting our performance, these problems were straining
relations between certain members of the team. After several
weeks, I thought that if we introduced more regular meetings
and a rotating chair, communications might improve. When
I made this suggestion, the team members agreed to it and,
to make a long story short, the new meeting format turned
out to be a success. Both communications and performance
improved (step 2: overcoming an obstacle).
I also demonstrated my team player capabilities by making
a point of acknowledging my colleagues’ opinions and
contributions, as well as helping team members when they
were having problems. I think when you’re willing to help
others, they’ll help you when you need it in return—and that
can only be good for the team. I also made a point of sharing
all information I thought my colleagues needed to know. I
would mention even seemingly unimportant information
such as individuals griping about their pay and minor mishaps
with the software because often it can be the little things that
cause big problems down the line (step 2: the what and how).
According to my colleagues, my presence in the team led
to improved communications amongst team members, as
well as with our clients, which contributed significantly to
our overall performance. In particular, our error rate was
halved within two months (step 4: outcomes).
Remember that, unless the interviewer has specifically told you
that the company is placing a great deal of emphasis on hiring
someone with effective team player skills, chances are that you
would not use every aspect of the above answer in response to a
single question. You may decide to use parts of it and keep the rest
in reserve for a follow-up question or a question seeking information
about similar skills. It is wise to over-prepare and even wiser to know
when to stop. The same principle applies to the rest of the ‘big five’
Answering a planning and organising question
It is difficult to think of a job in which is no planning and organising
are involved. If we accept that technology has largely taken over
many of the repetitive tasks performed by people in the past, most
jobs these days involve some sort of planning and organising.
Planning and organising questions are therefore likely to be high
on the agenda of many interviewers. Here are some typical planning
and organising questions.
• Tell us how you go about planning and organising your work
• Can you give us an example of when you had to plan and organ-
ise an important event or work-related activity? What steps did
• Do you consider yourself a good planner and organiser? Why?
• What do you do when your manager asks you to complete a
task but you’ve already got a very full agenda?
• How do you prioritise your work?
• Describe your approach to planning and organising your work.
Table 8.2 shows how the four steps can help you prepare for this
type of question.
Now let’s look at a sample interview question and response.
Question: Can you give us an example of when you had to plan
and organise an important event or work related activity? What
steps did you take?
Table 8.2 Planning and organising
What I did to ensure
the duties listed
under step 1 were
• Diarising work on a
daily, weekly and/or
• Planning for
• Keeping abreast of
upcoming events and
working out how they
may affect my work
• Prioritising my work
according to the needs
of the organisation
• Never taking on
more work than I can
• Keeping communi-
cation channels with
Working in the
unit for Michael
which employed over
1000 people, I was
working in a small
team which was
responsible for a broad
range of duties ranging
from ordering all
painting supplies to
and managers with
• Our clients rated our
service ‘very high’ for
three years in a row
• I learned a great deal
about what it takes to
organisation in terms
When I was working in the administration support unit for
Michael Angelo Enterprises, I was responsible for planning a
broad range of activities ranging from the timely ordering of
paint supplies to security, building maintenance and assisting
departments and managers with basic infrastructure needs
(step 3: context).
Juggling all these activities simultaneously meant I had
to plan my work in great detail as well as be very well organised.
There was one time when we had to install new security
systems and new computer graphics software, as well as
answering the multiple requests made by our clients. In order
to deal with all of this, I needed to diarise my work on a
daily, weekly and monthly basis and ensure that I continually
kept up to date with what everyone else was doing. I made
sure I attended as many meetings as I could and kept my ear
to the ground. Given the multiple tasks I had to complete, I
found it important to prioritise my work according to the
needs of the organisation, as opposed to the needs of a few
individuals. Getting the new security systems in place had
to come before some of the requests made by managers. And,
finally, it was important to learn how to say ‘no’ to some
requests. In my view, a good planner knows how much is
enough. Taking on more work than one can handle only
leads to poor-quality service or even failure to do the work
(step 2: the what and how).
As well as learning a great deal about what it takes to
maintain an organisation in terms of infrastructure support,
one of the great outcomes of my actions was that my clients
rated my service as ‘very high’ for three years running, which
gave me a great deal of satisfaction (step 4: outcomes).
Answering an interpersonal communication question
Interpersonal communication skills are not just about clear communi-
cations. They are also about the way we interact with others. People
with effective interpersonal communication skills are much more
likely to get on with others in the workplace (and thus get ahead)
because they demonstrate a range of behaviours that bring out the
best in the people they interact with. They are good listeners, avoid
inflammatory language (including body language), acknowledge
others’ contributions, consult before making decisions, and so on.
People with effective interpersonal communication skills are
highly prized by employers because they bring harmony to the
workplace. They usually make people feel better about themselves
and their contributions—which, of course, is important to employers
in terms of maintaining a happy and productive workforce.
Here are some typical interpersonal communication skills
• Do you enjoy working with people?
• How would you describe your relations with others in the work-
• Describe yourself. (Whilst this question does not confine itself
to interpersonal communication skills, it does provide an excel-
lent opportunity for you to briefly mention them.)
• Tell us about a time when you had a disagreement with some-
one at work. What were the circumstances and how did you
deal with it?
• Can you give us an example of when you had to communicate
a complex and sensitive issue? How did you go about it?
• Describe the colleague with whom you enjoyed working most.
• How do you deal with an angry person at work?
• Would you prefer to be seen as a well-liked person or an effec-
A clear overlap exists between interpersonal communication skills
and team player skills. Many of the points can therefore be used
Table 8.3 shows how the four steps can be used to prepare an
answer to this type of question.
Here’s an example of a possible interview question and response.
Question: Can you give us an example of when you had to
communicate a complex and sensitive issue? How did you go
When I was working for Magellan, I was on the team that
was responsible for introducing a new performance appraisal
system for all of the crew on our ship. Working on this project,
I was often required to communicate complex and sensitive
information to individuals and groups. I’d like to emphasise
Table 8.3 Interpersonal communication
What I did to ensure
the duties listed
under step 1 were
• Taking the time to
listen to what others had
to say, even if I didn’t
like what I was hearing
clearly, taking into
account my audience
and avoiding jargon
• Using positive, non-
language at all times
others’ opinions and
• Consulting before
When I was working
for Magellan, I was
on the team that put
• Contributed to the
implementation of a
system, with minimal
• Gained much
creating good working
that performance appraisals were an extremely sensitive issue
because people’s pay was being attached to the results (step 3:
I was successful in communicating the relevant information
because I adhered to a number of sound interpersonal
communication principles—principles that I have successfully
implemented in the past. For example, I made a point of
taking people’s sensitivities into account and addressing them
early on in our conversations. I avoided any form of jargon,
and often assumed that my audience had very little prior
knowledge about the issues at hand. I used positive, non-
threatening body language—especially when I was confronted
by the sceptics who belittled the program despite their lack
of knowledge about it. I also acknowledged other people’s
opinions and never made disparaging comments about
suggestions, no matter how outlandish they were (step 2: the
what and how).
Furthermore, I always made the effort to consult with key
stakeholders before finalising decisions. The very fact that
you make the effort to consult and explain the parameters
within which you have to work often minimises levels of
dissatisfaction, even though people may not entirely agree
As a result of my efforts, opposition to the program was
virtually non-existent. The crew demonstrated a constructive
attitude and gave it their best. As a result, we were able to
successfully implement the program within our timeframe
Coping with change in the workplace
Unlike the workplace of yesteryear, when people could be performing
the same set of duties for many years, today’s work environment is
characterised by constant change. In fact, it can be argued that the
only constant is change. All this, of course, means a flexible employee
is a highly valued one. Change can take the form of any number
of things, including:
• new machinery;
• new procedures or guidelines;
• new legislation;
• new management structures;
• company takeovers;
• new software;
• the effects of new competition.
Organisations that are unable to adapt quickly to changing
circumstances often lose market share and can easily go out of
business. Therefore, how you respond to ‘coping with change’
questions is very important. Here are a few examples of the form
they may take:
• Tell us about a time you had to learn new things about your job.
How did you cope?
• Do you enjoy changing duties?
• How do you cope with constant change in the workplace?
• Do you regard yourself as a flexible sort of person?
Table 8.4 Coping with change in the workplace
change in the
What I did to ensure
the duties listed under
step 1 were performed
• Understanding that
change is the only
constant in the modern
change often means
• I embraced retraining
and new ways of doing
things such as new
software packages, new
accounting methods, new
legislation re safety
• I think of change as the
only way to keep my skills
up to date, thus maintaining
Whilst I was
working for the
• The new technology
time and budget
• I learned a new and
more efficient way of
• How do you think you would react if you suddenly had to aban-
don a project you were working on and start a new one?
• What are your views on learning in the workplace?
Table 8.4 shows how the four steps can be used to prepare answers
for questions such as these.
Now let’s look at a sample question and a possible response.
Question: Tell us about a time you had to learn new things about
your job. How did you cope?
When I working for Northern Legions building Hadrian’s
Wall, senior management decided to invest heavily in new
technology which was designed to improve quality and save
us a great deal of time. This new technology involved an
array of new equipment, software and work procedures, and
represented a sea change in how I performed my duties (step
Initially, all of us were slightly daunted at the grand scale
of the changes; however, I soon realised that the changes
were inevitable if our company was to remain competitive.
I also quickly came to the realisation that, if I was to remain
a valued member of the company, I would need to quickly
learn how to work under the new regime. This realisation
ensured that I embraced the changes enthusiastically. Whereas
some of my colleagues saw it as a burden, I saw it as the way
of the future—which is how I’ve come to view change
generally. As well as attending all the required training sessions,
I attended extra ones as well. I studied hard, asked questions
and gained as much experience as I could. I soon became the
acknowledged expert in certain areas, and people started
coming to me for advice (step 2: the what and how).
As a result of our efforts, the new technology was
successfully implemented. My team was working with the
new technology within the timelines and budget allocated
to us. And I learned a whole new way of doing things (step