What an Interviewer Really Wants to Know When They Ask ‘What’s Your Work Style?’

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Hannah Berman175
June 23, 2024 at 6:53PM UTC

Walking into an interview is always stressful, no matter whether you're dying to get the job or you just applied on the offhand chance that it might work out. No matter how much you’ve prepped for the interview by studying the employer and rehearsing the way you present yourself, there’s still a good chance that the interviewer pulls out a question you never could have anticipated. 

One of the hardest  questions to answer is “How would you describe your work style?” When interviewers mention work style, many applicants freeze up. The question is so vague and open-ended that any answer that comes to mind seems like the wrong thing to say. Is there any good way to answer this question? More importantly, is there a right way to answer this question?

What the recruiter really wants to know

The person interviewing you is trying to gauge whether your work style is a good fit for the work environment they are considering bringing you into. They want to ensure that your work ethic will benefit their organization; they want to know that your capacity for group work is appropriate for the amount of group work you’ll be assigned. In this sense, there's no wrong way to answer this question — the interviewer is not testing whether you adhere to some preconceived notion but rather looking for a response that defines what work style means for you. 

Different types of work styles

A relatively novel way to look at work style comes to us from social psychologists Kim Christfort and Suzanne M. Johnson, who study the way people work and the way people work together. In their co-authored book, Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships, the two identified and labeled four main work styles that most people fall under. 

1. Pioneers are forward-thinking individuals who act like leaders. Like their namesake, they pave paths for others to follow. They’re willing to take risks, and they have power to influence those around them. 

2. Guardians are more pragmatic than their pioneering peers. They’re cognizant of real-world constraints on their actions and are more generally grounded. They might work more slowly because they are more focused on getting things right and doing a thorough job.

3. Drivers are motivated by competition. They are interested in challenges, good at problem-solving and compelled to work towards concrete goals. 

4. Integrators are great to have on your team because they believe firmly in the democracy of a joint venture. During disagreements, they try to find a middle ground by incorporating everyone’s ideas. Because of their tendency to be good listeners, they have lots of people skills

Tips for giving your best answer.

Do your research.

This is without a doubt the most important tip to help you jump over this interview hurdle. If you haven’t properly researched the organization you’re attempting to join, you won’t know what kind of skills they’re looking for in applicants. Without a stable understanding of the values of your possible employers, it is easy to tank this question, so study up! 

Give a focused response.

If your response is too long, you’ll lose the attention of the interviewer, and you risk being ultimately incoherent. Avoid that problem by choosing to focus on a single area of your work style. Talk about how you work with others, how you manage your time or how well you take directions; don't mention everything at once. An added bonus of focusing on one area of work style is that if you choose to highlight your commitment to deadlines, then you can divert attention away from your habit of gossiping with coworkers.

Stay honest.

Interviewers can sense panic, and if in your panic you end up lying to them, they’ll likely sense that, too. Telling a rehearsed lie is a similarly noticeable thing; plus, you don’t want to start off a new job on dishonest terms. If you’re not great at working with people who are controlling, or if you sometimes get bogged down by your own perfectionism, you should be upfront about those things. 

3 great ways to answer the question.

1. “I am very proud of how I work under a manager. I used to struggle to understand why other people’s input was important to my own process, but I've discovered that it’s really important to be able to take direction from supervisors because when more people are involved in a project, it’s easier to assure the quality of the work. Now, I value the input my bosses give me and try to incorporate their ideas into my work as often as possible.” 

This answer shows the applicant's pleasant attitude and pliability to instruction. It is also indicative of a capacity for growth — something which is very useful in most offices. 

2. “I work really well with others. I identify as a ‘driver’ type, which makes me a very useful member of a team because I’m very mission-oriented and capable of getting a group on track to finish a project. For example, on my last group project, I took a leadership role and rallied my coworkers to accomplish our goal ahead of schedule.” 

This answer showcases clearly the applicant's attitude toward working with others. It identifies the type of challenge that motivates them and offers an example that proves they're speaking from experience, not just saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear. 

3. “I’m great at meeting deadlines. I believe strongly that meeting your deadlines is a sign of respect for the people who employ you, and therefore I make time management a huge priority in my day to day work. When I think I can’t turn something in on time, I make sure to let my employer know as soon as possible, in order to maintain that mutual respect.”

While explaining how they work around a deadline, this applicant is sharing their beliefs about what makes an office work well. This strategy is smart because it establishes a code of conduct that the interviewer can expect the applicant to reliably follow. 

Mistakes to avoid when answering 

You want to stand out from the pack when giving these answers, so don’t use old, tired language to put your point across. Every interviewer can anticipate before the words leave your mouth that you’re a hard-working perfectionist/workaholic. Of course, you still want the interviewer to get the sense that you are a hard-working perfectionist/workaholic, but you should try whenever possible to qualify those meaningless clichés by telling real stories about your past work experiences. If you commit to giving sturdy examples of your perfectionism, it will be a lot easier to believe. 

Now that you’ve read this quick guide, with any luck, the next time a recruiter inquires about your work style, you won’t freeze. You’ll breathe in, breathe out, and move on smoothly with several glowing examples of your work style that will stick out in the interviewer’s memory and potentially even land you the job. That is, as long as you can get past all the other tricky interview questions that they throw at you.

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