February 1, 2011

The Worst Interview Question (and How to Answer It)

The following interview nightmarecomes from when I was sitting on the board of directors of a small nonprofit: We were interviewing finalists for the executive director position, and one director asked the last candidate, "Larry, what do you consider your greatest weakness?" Larry thought a minute, flushed, and then answered, "Well, some people I've worked with would say that I have a tendency to just talk on and on without saying anything, but I couldn't agree. I know I like to talk, but I think that what I say has a lot of meaning. That is, while I am talking and talking, I am actually saying something..." He understood he was embarrassing himself, but he still droned on. We sat horrified. With his answer to this terrible (but oft-used) interview question, he proved his biggest weakness.

I know what you're thinking: How could the question be so terrible if it showed he wasn't right for the job? Well, in this situation, it didn't shed any new light on Larry. We already knew about his particularly verbose style of communicating from earlier in the interview. But this question always makes people feel uneasy. It originates from the old-fashioned aversive interview approach of the 1950s and 1960s, designed to make the candidate uncomfortable in order to gauge how he handles pressure.

The question still feels like a put down. When you purposefully make a candidate feel embarrassed, she won't forget it, and will most likely never recommend your organization to a friend.

For my part, I don't believe in the abstract idea of individual "weaknesses," only weaknesses in the context of particular corporate cultures. For example, someone who might seem weak or indecisive in an execution-oriented culture might fit right into a highly collaborative culture. What looks like weakness in one culture may be strength in another. It's much more useful for an interviewer to know what strengths are needed to do the job and to determine if the candidate has those strengths.

Some interviewers are still convinced in the value of the weakness question, so they continue to ask it. As a result, candidates have learned to fabricate answers, for example, "My biggest weakness is that I'm a workaholic." Overall, forcing a candidate into making up answers is a bad way to start a relationship. And can the interviewer really expect to be alerted to the candidate's limitations with this question — that they would say something like, "I'm lazy and terrible with numbers"?

A client of mine tried what I thought was a reasonable response: "I'm probably not the best judge of my weaknesses, but I'm sure that my previous bosses would be able to help you." And still, the hiring manager's response was not pretty.

Loathed as it is, you will have to be prepared for this question — because sooner or later some stickler will ask. Rather than hemming and hawing for an answer on the spot, follow these recommendations:

  1. Prepare an answer that is true, trivial, brief, and not a fault. Some examples:
    • My biggest weakness is that my professional network is in San Francisco, but I am looking for a job in Boston to be with my fiancĂ©.
    • My biggest weakness is that my undergraduate degree is from a college that has a good reputation in the East, but is not well-known in the Midwest.
    • My biggest weakness is that while I'm great at advocating for something I believe in, I find it uncomfortable to talk about myself.
  2. Run your answer by a couple of critical friends or colleagues to make sure it sounds reasonable.
  3. When asked the question, end your answer by asking the interviewer a question, so that the attention is deflected away from your answer.

And if you prepare an answer and no one asks you, don't be disappointed. Thank your lucky stars, and hope that it's a sign that asking job candidates to openly describe their weaknesses has finally gone out of favor.

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