Difficult interview questions fall into a few different categories, including 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, as we say at the Five O’Clock Club, to play the interview “game”. That is, you don’t necessarily have to literally answer the question as it is asked. Instead, pause, and quickly ask 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 the question this way, then you are either wasting time or hurting your chances. In that case, it’s best to just answer briefly and get back to playing the game to win, i.e. illustrating how you can help them using your success stories.
Let’s address the greatest weaknesses types of questions (I’ll tackle the other types in future blog entries). These include “What is your greatest weakness”, “Give me an example of an area for development that was in your last review”, “tell me about a criticism a boss once gave you,” or “give me an example of a situation where you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.”
You will frequently get these questions from HR (because they leverage these types of questions to screen out candidates) as well as from very senior level executives. The latter 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. So, answer these questions thoughtfully, but don’t get tripped up here by going all negative– it is not the place to say “often after lunch I tend to fall asleep at my desk.” Another rule about interviewing— keep it as positive as possible! Negativity is a no-no.
Here’s how to answer a question like one of these. Take an example of something that happened to you a while ago, say 5 or 10 years ago, that illustrates a weakness, a criticism, or something on your development plan. Then talk about how you learned from it, and how it has helped you become more successful. Then 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 spent on your success story that illustrates how you’ve grown.
Here’s an example. A client, in answer to the “greatest weaknesses” question, said “about 10 years ago I realized that I have a tendency to get carried away by my enthusiasm for a project, and I can make mistakes by not ensuring that key stakeholders are on board. In this case I didn’t get the results I wanted with a proposal I was making. But I’ve learned from that experience, and it’s made me better ever since. In fact, keeping this experience top of mind has been a key to my success over the last 10 years. For example, winning the contract for <insert success story here>…”