Every so often you will get an interview question like this from HR or a senior level executive. “Greatest weakness” types of interview questions also include “tell me about a criticism your boss once gave you,” or “give me an example of a situation where you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.” They use these questions to a) find people who are genuinely self-reflective and open to improvement, and b) screen out people who say something problematic. When forming your answer, keep these three guidelines in mind:
- Answer these questions thoughtfully, since executives will appreciate your ability to self-reflect.
- Negativity is a no-no in an interview — keep the conversation as positive as possible. For questions like this that are designed to bring out something negative, don’t get tripped up here by saying something that’s incompatible with the job description, e.g. “often after lunch I tend to fall asleep at my desk.”
- Look to share your “success stories“ when answering an interview question.
Given these considerations, the best answer involves taking an example of something that happened to you a long time ago, say 5 or 10 years ago, that illustrates a weakness, a criticism, or a negative outcome. Then talk about how you learned from it, and how it has helped you become more successful. Finally, end with an example from one of your “success stories” to illustrate how you’ve learned from it. This way you end on the most positive note possible, and essentially change the subject back to illustrating how you can help them! About 25% of your answer should be talking about your weakness, and 75% should be on your success story that illustrates how you’ve grown.
Here’s an example. A client, in answer to the “greatest weakness” question, said “about 10 years ago I realized that my enthusiasm for an idea can sometimes lead to mistakes. In this case, I put a lot of work into developing a proposal that was ultimately rejected. This experience, where I didn’t get the result that I wanted, really opened my eyes to the fact that others may not share my enthusiasm, and that I need to ensure key stakeholders are on board. I’ve learned from that experience, and keeping it top of mind has made me better ever since. For example, winning the contract for <insert success story here>…”
To take a broader perspective, difficult interview questions fall into a few different categories, including past performance questions, stress questions (“I don’t think you’re good enough…”), seemingly off-the wall questions (“how do you find a needle in a haystack”), behavioral questions, including those that assume a negative (give me an example of a time when you had a difficult employee…”) and “greatest weaknesses” types of questions.
In answering these questions, the key thing to remember is to play the interview “game,” as we say at the Five O’Clock Club. That is, you don’t necessarily have to answer the question in a literal way. Instead, pause, and quickly think to yourself: “How can I keep this as positive as possible,” and “Can I use this question as an opportunity to either learn about the issues they are facing, or to illustrate how I can help them using one of my success stories?”
If you can’t use their question as an opportunity to learn about or focus on their issues, then you are either wasting time or hurting your chances. In that case, it’s best to just answer briefly and change the subject back to your “here’s how I can help you” agenda.