Every job seeker hates interview questions like what is your weakness or tell me about a mistake you made. Many believe these questions are designed to make them sweat and there can't possibly be a good answer. Others have heard that the key to answering these tough questions is to spin the response and turn a negative into a positive.
But these responses usually either lack authenticity or are otherwise misguided, since what many people think would be perceived as a strength to the hiring manager is actually considered a liability. Candidates that lack authenticity are easy to spot, and the outcome of the interview is severely compromised when job seekers choose to spin their responses to tough interview questions.
As a matter of fact, in a 2009 Society for Human Resources Management survey, recruiters and hiring managers reported that one of their biggest pet peeves within the context of the interview situation was candidates that responded to difficult interview questions with answers that attempted to spin a tough situation into one with only positive outcomes. Below are a few of the most common interview questions that job seekers try to spin their responses to and some suggested alternative responses.
What is your greatest weakness?
Red flag answer
"I am a perfectionist and I get frustrated when people aren't as committed to the job as I am."
The candidate is answering the question about a weakness by responding with an answer that suggests a strength. Such answers are disingenuous and are not well-received by hiring authorities. The candidate is also assuming that perfection is considered a desirable trait in the organization. Some hiring managers will perceive a perfectionist as someone who gets so caught up in the details that they can't achieve the project's objectives.
Earlier in my career, when I was a software developer, my strong attention to detail was an asset because I could quickly spot and correct systems errors. But after I was promoted to project manager, this strength became a bit of a liability because I was now responsible for delegating work and overseeing the big picture aspect of the project. I struggled at first because it was my nature to want to fix every error. While I still have that tendency, I now rely on the technical expertise of my team and this allows me to concentrate on delivering projects on time and on budget.
Tell me about a situation where you did not get along with a supervisor.
Red flag answer
"I've been very fortunate, and I've never worked for someone I didn't get along with."
Everyone has had situations where they disagreed with a boss, and by saying you have not forces the interviewer to question your integrity. It also can send out a signal that the candidate is not seasoned enough or hasn't been in situations that require him to develop a tough skin or deal with confrontation.
"It's natural for people to have differing opinions. When this has occurred in the past, I have presented my reasons for my position and openly listened to my supervisor's opinion as well. Recently my supervisor recommended a change to a report that in my opinion made the reporting more cumbersome and time-consuming. I expressed my concerns but also asked many questions to determine what information my boss needed to capture what was not currently in the report. Once I understood her needs, I was able to offer a suggestion that satisfied her information needs and actually streamlined the existing report and made it easier to use."
Describe a situation where an initiative you were part of failed.
Red flag answer
"I've never had a project that failed; my supervisors have always praised my work."
If you can't discuss a failure or mistake, the interviewer might conclude that you do not possess the depth of experience necessary to do the job. The interviewer is not looking for perfection. They are trying to better understand your level of responsibility, your decision-making process, your ability to recover from a mistake, what you learned from the experience, and if you can take responsibility for your mistakes.
"Everyone makes mistakes. I'd like to think that I have learned something valuable from every mistake I have made. In my previous role as marketing director, I launched a product and was disappointed in the initial sales results. I realized that we had launched too quickly and needed to do additional market research to determine the needs of multiple demographics within our market. Following the research initiative, the marketing was realigned with a niche demographic and sales doubled within one year."
By developing and practicing responses to difficult interview questions that display honesty, thoughtfulness, good will, and fallibility, you will create a realistic and authentic portrait of your candidacy and develop a strong rapport with the hiring authority. This will help you advance to the next round in the interview process and lead you one step closer to securing the position.