How do you deal with conflicting priorities and multiple tasks?

Very relevant question, and it's intended to find out how you organize your work, and yourself.

Most people will be aware how much of a mess can be made by conflicting priorities. Some things aren't done. Some are delayed. Some are late. Some are rushed, and quality suffers.

None of which is really acceptable. So employers really need to see organizational skills and practical methods, in an interview.

In this case, you need to give interviewers a start to finish version of how you operate in the workplace.

The answer has to be organized, too. Good answers don't need explanations.

The multi tasking and conflicting priorities question must be answered so the whole process is clear.

Tell the interviewers:

  • What's supposed to be done,
  • What the conflicts are
  • How the priorities are decided
  • The result of your methods

What's supposed to be done

The interviewers need to know the actual tasks. That clarifies the real time work situation. You can show that you have a variety of tasks, some of which are urgent, some are routine, others have a higher priority to meet guidelines, and are working on a date and time based schedule.

What the conflicts are

It's one of the fundamental realities of the workplace that people are hit with several things to do in a time frame. That's one of the reason the conflicting priorities question is so important.

It's also a productivity issue, for employers, because they have to know that their employees can deal with priorities and keep the work on track.

In practice, this is normal work, and everybody has a range of things that have to be done within any time frame. The conflicts arise when two or more things have to be done in a certain time.

How you decide the priorities

When answering, you have to explain the methods of deciding priorities.

Sometimes the priorities aren't up to you. They're decided by management, and you have to fit in keeping your other work up to date.

Sometimes you set the priorities to fit your own performance requirements.

Routine work is a case in point, where you're well aware of what turnover is required, and you want to keep things moving to stay current and avoid backlogs. In some cases you'll want to move some work before others, because of your own prioritization of your work.

In practice you will find a mix of priorities:

  • Routine work
  • Work which is subject to deadlines
  • Additional high priority work

Both your own, and any important work which comes to you from external sources must be given relative priorities. Meaning, obviously, that you have to reschedule your routine work and other matters in progress, to get the higher priority work done.

The result of your methods

Remember: The question's not just about high priority work.

The other work doesn't go away while you're dragged off doing other things.

You have to give a comprehensive picture of your whole range of tasks, in terms of priorities.

So you have to explain the final situation in terms of dealing with both conflicting priorities and all your other work.

Example:

A case manager in a business consultancy explains how he deals with conflicting priorities and multiple tasks. This is all client based work, and the employer interviewing is very strict about performance standards.

I have an existing case load of clients, with new clients coming in all the time. Some of it is routine work, follow-ups to correspondence, or matters arising from existing client situations. I can't delegate this work, because I'm the assigned case manager.

That's all ongoing work, low priority, no urgency required by the clients. Management issued guidelines to case managers for a ten day turnaround, but I set a turnaround time of five days, a working week. I make sure none of that routine work stays on my desk any longer than that, so I can also handle the incoming workloads and never have a backlog.

Some of my work is contract-based case management, our consultancy role, where the consultancy is current, and is at various phases of implementing our initiatives with the client.

This is high priority work, and is based on contract terms, so the deadlines are extremely strict, and we have to be ahead of those requirements. Management insists on this work being completed at least two weeks before the contract date. I prioritize this work ahead of that date, and make sure I can schedule myself properly. Sometimes involves working on my own time on weekends, but I can say I never miss a deadline.

Then there's the really urgent work. This is drop-everything work, required for immediate attention, top priority. Some of it has had three hour turnaround times, although it's usually next day.

This work often involves things like getting computer and account reports up to the minute, status reports, and full briefings for management. It's very hectic work, and as a case manager I have to coordinate all of it.

I don't set the priorities for that work, and of course I still have the other work to do, and keep up to date and on schedule. Sometimes I get a few of these top priority jobs, and I have to ask management about which have to be given priorities, relative to each other.

So the top priority work has a straight run from the moment I get it. I have reschedule my contract work to stick strictly to my deadlines, and continue to ensure the routine work is up to date.

The result is all my work is kept under control, and my time management is also always under control.

So there are low, high, and top priority tasks, the candidate has to do all of them, and stay organized and work to deadlines.

Time management is the key to operating the multiple tasks and handling the conflicting priorities.

The candidate has made a point of scheduling, and isn't letting other work slide because of conflicts.

You'll recognize similarities with your own daily work, when urgent work comes in, and you already have plenty.

Think of this question like that, and explain the situation clearly, like you were telling your boss what's involved in the work you're doing.