How To Deal With Conflicting Priorities and Multiple Tasks – Interview Question (With Examples)
I wrote a post HERE and created a video on how to handle conflicting priorities and multiple tasks.
There is a comment on this post that stands out, and it reads:
“If you were someone who is organised and delegate you would not have had the two problems arise together. To immediately cry to your boss and for them to be the one who actually resolves the situations for you, a double concern…would certainly not use as an example to a prospective employer…”
The above comment is written by someone who believes that if you were organized enough and good enough at your job, and new how to delegate to begin with then you’d never have this type of conflict… or problem or issue in the first place.
Maybe Jo hasn’t ever experienced unexpected challenges before that he or she could not have foreseen through planning, organization and delegation. That is pretty impressive if I do say so myself…
The reality is that you can never predict what will be thrown at you, so matter how organized you may be, if you are in a situation with conflicting priorities that doesn’t mean that you aren’t good at organizing or managing your time (sometimes it could mean that)….
But it’s not the case all the time. That’s a myth, It’s just life. If you’re a parent or a step parent, you can probably relate. If you’ve worked in a fast paced environment before… If you’ve been alive for more than 5 minutes.. I’m sure you have witnessed many situations that you could not have possibly forseen through organization, planning or delegation.
We can’t plan and be prepared for everything, I don’t care what anyone says.
We can manage risk.
We can do our best.
We can set up contingencies as best we can.
But reading a book on how to swim. Then getting thrown in the deep end of the pool and being expected to swim perfectly.
It’s not the same thing…
You (no matter who you are) just can’t plan for everything. No one can. That’s life.
In this new updated post I will clarify how to follow a process for handling conflicting priorities at work. I will be listing different possible scenarios and various options to deal with them that have been proven to work very well both for myself, my colleagues and clients.
I stand by the advice in my earlier video on asking your boss if you are really struggling to decide which items should take priority. However I do see how some further clarification would be helpful as it’s not the only way to approach it, neither is it the first way you should approach it either.
There are things you can do and a process you can follow to help make a decision on what conflicting priority should come first on your priorities list:
Step 1: Analyze your situation and your priorities in general:
You would assess the situation and see if you can become clear on what takes priority by doing a little critical thinking yourself first.
Sometimes it just takes sitting down and making a list with a time estimate for each task or priority.
Sometimes you can get a clear head by just writing down everything you need to do, putting it in a list of importance. 1 being the most important and 10 being the least.
This is quite simplistic advice, obviously and you’re probably thinking (Duh Natalie I obviously know how to do that)…. Ok cool, well I get it.
I understand that most people in jobs that require organization make lists, or work with some sort of organizational tracking system, whether it be digital or physical. So if you are already doing that, then that’s great.
So if you’ve passed that step then continue reading I will be explaining what to do if the list doesn’t work, because of literally conflicting priorities that are of equal importance.
How do you go about deciding what comes first?
Step 2: Think it Through Using a Series of Smart Questions:
How long will each task/priority take?
Can I delegate / get help with any pieces of each task?
How urgent is each priority is there a clear deadline for each?
How much money is each priority worth to the company?
Probably I will get some haters for this next thing I’m going to say, but this is the reality, if one priority is for a million dollar/ year in client billing and the other is for a 100k client. Then I’m sorry to say but the million dollar client gets the attention and is going to be the first priority.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t do all that is possible to get that 100k client taken care of as fast as possible. Ideally you can find a win win solution, where both clients are equally served and taken care of, and there are resources to help both. But if there aren’t then the client that is worth more wins.
We all know it comes down to money, even though many of us may not like to hear that.
Step 3: What if There Is No Clear or Perfect Way to Decide:
We all want win wins where we don’t have to choose. Where it all gets done and everyone is always happy. But it doesn’t always work that way.
In places where there are extreme budget cuts or very limited resources, sometimes there are no good ways to choose who or what gets priority over something or someone else.
In these cases the most important thing is to make a decision. Because the alternative is not making a decision and that sets everything back, causes delays, and more stress for everyone. If there is no good way to make the call then just making A decision, any decision when you’re uncertain and no one can ever really be sure shows leadership and courage and confidence.
Making decisions that are hard (even if it ends up being the wrong call) you show strength and true character. Most people are afraid to make the wrong decision and will freeze up and make no decision.
That’s why bosses, (leaders) get paid more. They need to make the tough calls and sometimes they need to make unpopular decisions and deliver bad news.
If they didn’t make a decision at all, then everyone would be stuck and road blocked from moving forward.
Conflicting Priorities Example Interview Question Answer:
Schools have budget cuts, they need to decide which special needs child gets a full time Teaching Assistant. They can’t share the teaching assistant because they are too far away from each other attending different schools in the district. How do you decide which child gets the TA and what do you tell the parents of the other child that doesn’t get the TA?
If it’s a public school system then they are both on equal ground, financially or we will assume that the families have the same income. So you’d probably assess the child’s records and tests to decide which one was in more dire need. But what if they were both on par? Both having different issues but equally dire? How do you decide?
Which family has more means to get their child the help outside of school or at another school? Which family may be able to homeschool?
Every question you ask the answer is the same for both children.
Then you make a call. You get some input from others in case you missed something.
Ask your boss, ask councillors, ask other teachers.
Eventually If you get nothing no new insights or new info, then you have to make a call.
Hopefully you can get some indication of what the best call would be but no matter what someone is going to be unhappy about it. So the key is making sure that you are confident in your decision. That you know in your heart that you did the best you could with the information that you had.
That you did your best to gather more information before making the call, so that you could make an informed decision.
Because no matter what, someone is going to be very unhappy with the decision.
Failing at work needs to be ok.
One of my colleagues who I admired very much once said:
“If I ever worked at a place where I was not allowed to fail because I was afraid of what would happen if I made the wrong call I would not work there.”
He went on to say that failing is where we learn the most and when we fail, when we make wrong calls sometimes. When the call is ours to make, then we get that lesson, no one else does because we made the call.
When someone else is responsible for making all the decisions for us or at least approving them before we move forward, (when we do ask our boss for advice) then ultimately we learn from those experiences too but we don’t internalize them the same way at all.
Step 4: Good Communication and Sound Judgement
That’s one thing that your Manager is there to help with, to help you sort priorities if you need. If you were really unsure and you chose the wrong thing and for example left an important customer on the hook because you thought something else was more important, your Manager would rather you have gone to them first, and so you want to not put yourself in that situation right?
So when possible and with good judgement you do want to go to your Manager if that is an option. However you don’t want to just “Run to your Manager with everything” as my commenter said.
You want to show that you have thought out the situation, propose your plan of action with reasons why. Then go to your Manager if you still feel it is necessary.
A lot of the times these things are of dire importance and they are time sensitive. If your Manager is not available within the near future by the time you wait for a Manager to be available it could be too late.
As a Manager I would rather see an employee make the wrong call, instead of wait for me to approve something.
I personally like to see decision making skills being practiced, I like to see that someone has confidence enough to take action independently (take initiative) and if I am not available the last thing I want to hear after the fact is:
“Oh I didn’t do anything because I was waiting to hear back.”
Your Manager may be different and hold a different point of view.
You can have a pre-emptive conversation with your Manager about how they like to be communicated with and how in the loop they need to be, how comfortable are they with you making choices on your own.
Over time you will get better and better at making the right decisions and you will feel more and more confident.
You can say: “In a situation where for example someone needs me to order something for them, and I have checked the budget, should I just order it or should I wait for you to approve it first?” What if you’re not free and it’s important? How do you prefer we handle a situation like that for example?”
This discussion will open up the lines of communication on how they prefer to be communicated with. I asked my boss this and he said: “That’s fine go ahead and order it.”
Now I need to use my judgement. Obviously if they want me to order them one of these:
(Even if it’s within budget) I’m going to question that. If I’m using sound judgement, I’m most likely going to laugh and say: “Yeah I need one of those too” … Because let’s be serious, who doesn’t?
If I ordered one for one person then I’d have to order one for everyone and that would not be sound judgment.
You get the idea….
So to clarify when you do go to your Manager, (If you do) always show that you’ve thought it through first, that you have an opinion and a clear idea of what priority takes precedence and your reasoning behind it.
Ideally you’d be able to go to your Manager and say:
“Hey so I’ve got these 3 things that are of equal importance, I believe I should do them in this order this is why, and this is what I’ll do to get the other 2 take care of, what do you think?”
Your Manager would say great sounds good, go do it. Thanks.
They might say:
“Actually this needs your attention first because (Insert new info that you were not previously aware of) and that is why you need to prioritize this instead. Thanks for checking with me first, let me know if you have any other questions… “
That being said sometimes your Manager is not available and sometimes your Manager would rather you proceed without checking, if they are not available, instead of waiting (for a prolonged period of time) without taking any action on things that are time sensitive and important.
Once again there are some standard questions that you can ask to start deciding what should be taking priority.
Questions to Help You Decide What Takes Priority:
Customer with the highest billings? Who has the highest customer value?
How many people are affected by each priority/task?
What has the greatest impact on how many people?
What has the greatest impact on the organization?
Is something on fire? (Needs to be dealt with immediately like in the next 2 minutes?)
How long is each priority going to take?
Can you recruit help from co-workers or another department?
Conclusion and Recap:
Checking with your Manager as long as you have shown you’ve put thought into it and have a plan, is perfectly ok. There is no shame in it, otherwise what is a Manager for?
It’s not “Crying” to your Manager for help if you are showing you’ve thought it through and want to double check your logic with them or see if you’ve missed any information that might impact your decision.
You can never be so organized or that much of a master delegator that you are prepared for everything, it’s not realistic, it’s not how life works.
In my opinion, it stresses people out more, trying to prepare for everything, rather than just being certain that they can handle whatever happens when it happens.
I used to be one of those people.
Risk management and contingency planning are noble and necessary activities, but they will never be iron clad or failsafe so stop trying to make them that. You’re setting yourself up for failure and will not achieve the impossible.
There are smart questions you can ask to make sure that your prioritizing logic is on the right track (the questions are mentioned throughout this post).
Sometimes you just need to make a decision even though it is difficult, if there is no one to consult, boss is not available, then a decision is better than no decision. Especially if the matter is time sensitive, which most conflicting priorities are.
Taking initiative and making a decision on which priority to choose is a form of leadership and it’s important to any role and a very desirable characteristic for Hiring Managers who have a healthy sense of professional growth for their staff.
Employers much prefer to hire employees who are proven to take initiative and have the ability to act independently. They do not prefer employees who act out of fear and run from any type of action, afraid they may make the wrong decision.
And there we have it. Conflicting Priorities Examples of Interview Answers. Conflicting Priorities and questions you can ask to make sure you are on the right track, Several ways on how to handle conflicting priorities and multiple tasks in the workplace.
Please share with me and others:
What’s an example that you have that you could share in the comments that would help someone else to deal with conflicting priorities? Do you agree with my commenter?
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