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The Worst Interview Question Ever

by Jun 12, 2014, 12:01 am ET

“What is your greatest weakness?” is the worst interview question, ever.

Here’s why you should be asking candidates about their greatest strength. 

What is your greatest weakness? If there was such a thing as a universally despised interview question, this would top the list. Sell me this pencil is a close second.

Job candidates hate this question because it puts them in an impossible situation. On the one hand, they could actually admit their greatest weakness. But, would you hire someone who told you that they were unorganized or tended to butt heads with his or her coworkers? On the other hand, he or she could lie and spin a strength. Sometimes I’m too hardworking. Of course you are. The last time I was interviewing for jobs, I mastered the art of cheeky avoidance. I possess super-human strength, but only when I’m angry.

The interviewers, for their part, hate this question because it’s cliché, and because they know it will be met with a B.S. answer, no matter how cleverly they ask. My favorite example is, tell me why, in five years, I have to fire you. My favorite answer? Economic downturn.

And, even if we managed to get a completely honest answer, would it even matter? The answer is no, for three reasons:

  1. First, they probably don’t know the answer. A 2006 analysis of 360-degree ratings showed strong a correlation between peer and supervisor ratings, but there was only a modest correlation between self-supervisor and self-peer ratings. In other words, most people have no idea how the rest of the world sees them. As one of my colleagues often puts it, everyone thinks they are smart, funny, and great in bed, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
  2. Next, anyone with the level of self-awareness it takes to actually pinpoint their greatest weakness (and the cajones to tell you) likely also possesses the presence of mind to put mechanisms in place to prevent that weakness from impacting his or her performance. For example, someone who knows that he or she tends to procrastinate (like me) will set hard deadlines for him or herself and use scheduling and productivity apps to keep them on track.
  3. Finally, most of your hires won’t fail because of their greatest weakness. Most of them will fail because they overplay their greatest strength. Here’s the science: a 2009 study of personality information from 126 managers and performance ratings from 1,500 of their coworkers showed that, as levels of certain strengths increased past a certain point, their effectiveness decreased. Anyone who has been in the workforce long has seen how this plays out. An ambitious new employee on your sales team turns cutthroat under the pressure to meet his or her numbers, and starts competing with members of his or her own team. Or, a detail-oriented accounting manager turns into a micro-manager.

I’m certainly not saying that weaknesses don’t impact our performance — they do. But weaknesses are easy to spot, and easy to compensate or correct. Because overused strengths are born in our blind spots, they can be hard to spot until they’ve already had a devastating effect.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Gareth Cooper

    Very we’ll put.

    I agree 100%

  • http://www.hortoninternational.com Gregory Sparzo

    Typically these questions come from inexperienced interviewers. Real pros eschew any question that burns time and does not add any real insight.

    Like most aspects of business these days, no one has time to waste end effective executives refuse to merely go through the motions.

  • Stephanie McDonald

    I think “What are you not interested in doing” is a more insightful discussion starter. I’m surprised by answers pretty often, actually. Recent ones:

    I hate doing QA on code my team members write.
    I will never do a coffee run again. (I may have been the one saying that, actually)
    I am entry level so don’t feel I have the right to complain. Yet.
    Working for a woman.

    All insightful answers around culture and job fit.

    At least, to me!

  • Richard Araujo

    If you truly concentrate on their performance and the context they worked in – company structure, direct manager, time frames, etc. – you’ll ferret out their weaknesses easily enough.

  • http://salesgenomix.com John Hoskins

    Hey Ryan

    I LOL and shared with clients. Sooo true. Well written. Thank you

    John

  • Wendi Ellis

    Great article that is direct and to the point. I have shared it with my network. Thank you!

  • http://www.wallstreetservices.com/ Peter Laughter

    Not sure I agree – what if you are looking for self-aware people who can pinpoint their greatest weakness (and have the cajones to tell you) who also possesses the presence of mind to put mechanisms in place to prevent that weakness from impacting performance?

    Yes it is hard to find these people but working with smart self-aware people is just easier from a management perspective. Convincing people that they have a weakness is a pain. It is easier to work with teammates on minimizing said weaknesses and doing so with people who can see them.

    We are all flawed humans – shouldn’t we admit it?

  • Glenn Mandelkern

    As interviewer, I never ask this question. It doesn’t reveal anything.

    Nevertheless, as interviewee it can’t be avoided. You never know who will ask it, when and why.

    My strategy is as follows:
    0. I tell them that’s a standard interview question and if they’d like, I could quote from a 101 Answers flash card book or I can offer my alternate strategy below — their choice!

    1. Any attribute can be cast as strength or weakness. (Example: To some impatience is a virtue because they value urgency in the workplace. To others impatience borders on rudeness.)

    2. The interviewer who I respect for having his own mind will therefore observe any attribute and determine if that is a strength or weakness relative to his workplace.

    3. I ask the interviewer that if we end up working together, I very much welcome any discussion whenever he observes me doing something that he considers to be a weakness to bring it to my immediate attention. He can explain to me why he believes that weakness is to the detriment of the department, the company, the customer base. We can then have a mature discussion as 2 professional who respect each other.

    4. We can then conclude that yes, the attribute is a weakness and it needs to be corrected or eliminated. It may have been okay for Company A, not for Company B. Alternately, as has happened to me repeatedly, I persuade my supervisor to see it as a sensible approach. Many times, we reach a compromise, e.g., “Okay, you do make sense. Just scale back what you’re doing a little bit.”

    Weaknesses, like many other situations in real life, need to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

  • Richard Araujo

    @ Peter,
    “We are all flawed humans – shouldn’t we admit it?”

    No, because humans are also subjective and irrational. During an interview people are looking for any reason to say no to a hire, because it’s almost always assumed to be a correct decision.

    From a candidate’s perspective, if you want the job the last thing you want to do is hand the hiring manager/interviewer a reason to deny you. Because they will deny you, even if you’re a near perfect match for the job, because it’s always the safe bet for the decision maker.

    From a recruiter’s perspective, you only want the hiring manager to say no for the right reasons, basically if there’s a real mismatch between the expected output, performance, and cultural match for which they’re looking. A candidate who has all that, but admits he hates paperwork or some other trivial ‘weakness’, gets rejected and now you’re back at work, essentially finding a replacement for someone who already should have been hired.

    If people were rational, there’d be no problem. They aren’t.

  • http://salesgenomix.com John Hoskins

    Ryan is right. This interviewing question falls in the category of “hypotheticals” and most often produces pure poppycock. This is often a reflection of a lack of interview preparation and desire to play amateur psychologist.

    Whats your greatest weakness? Oh, I work too hard. Oh, Im an overachiever. Oh, Im sometimes too much of a team player. Candidates have all rehearsed their answer to this question more times than the interviewer has practiced asking it. It would seem rare to get someone to admit their own self limitations. Oh, I’m a serial killer. NOT.

    If SHRM is correct and 80% or all resumes are full of 50% half truths one can only imagine the chance in ascertaining the truthful answer to this question or an applicant’s willingness to share it.

    Interviewing time is limited and this question seems a waste to me. What will the interviewer do with the information? They will imagine implications but generally the halo effect of other answers has them ignore the answer. After all, it is a totally subjective response. Can you think of an instance where this single data point had you discard or hire an applicant?

    The skill of asking the right questions in interviews requires planning and practice. Questions that don’t telegraph the response you are seeking to the candidate or have them answering hypotheticals which yield pure fantasy replies. Tell me about how you prospected to develop new business in your territory? (Candidate says…hmm prospecting must be important in this job – let me come up with a real good one for this question.)

    These pat questions get pat answers and only increase the odds of a costly, unforced hiring error.

  • http://salesgenomix.com John Hoskins

    Well said Peter!

  • http://www.rossclennett.com Ross Clennett

    Better than understanding a weakness is to understand how the responded when they were given feedback about a ‘weak’ work outcome they were responsible for (or perceived to be responsible for).

    Ask the candidate ‘When was a recent time you were criticized or received negative feedback? About what? Do you think the feedback was fair or unfair? Why? What did you learn from this?’

    A comprehensive answer should give you plenty of useful information about the way in which a candidate REFLECTS and RESPONDS when they are criticized or told they are weak in some area. This should be very instructive about how much they seek to improve versus how defensive they are.