The purpose of a job interview is to learn everything possible about you, your career, and your work-style in under an hour. (Sometimes under 30 minutes!) It’s a pretty tall order if you ask me. In terms of “everything there is to know” that doesn’t just include your big strengths, or accomplishments.
It also includes your less glamorous moments, your weaknesses, your mistakes, times when you couldn’t finish a project, couldn’t get along with someone… and lots of other things you wish you didn’t have to talk about.
When an interviewer is asking those more “negative” or developmental questions, it can sometimes feel like they’re waiting for you to shoot yourself in the foot. From my experience as a recruiter and the one doing those interviews, I can assure you that that’s not what they’re looking for — they just want to find the right candidate for the role.
However, answering these tougher, more negative questions does require a bit more finesse. Here are my top four tips for dealing with negative job interview questions without shooting yourself in the foot:
1. Don’t Pretend You’re Perfect
The worst thing you can do is give a B.S. answer or try to pretend these questions don’t apply to you. The worst offender is any “weakness” that’s really a strength (i.e. “I work too hard”) or saying you’ve never made a mistake (not likely). The reason your interviewer is even asking these questions is to make sure you can own up to your mistakes and learn from them.
If you say you’ve never made a single mistake (which I think is impossible) that will indicate to your interviewer that you can’t recognise when you have. If you can’t come up with a weakness, it will indicate to your interviewer that you think you’re perfect. Have you ever worked on a project with someone who thought they were perfect? Not fun!
2. Don’t Give Examples That Are Directly Related to Core Aspects of the Job You’re Interviewing for
Since we’ve established the key is to be somewhat honest and forthcoming with these questions, let’s set some ground rules for that too. While you do want to give real examples, you don’t want to give any that would make the interviewer doubt you’d be a good fit for the job. A good example is a weakness of “public speaking.” If you use that as your example of something that is a weaker area for you, but you’re applying for a role as a trainer, it could be seen as a red flag. If you’re applying for a role as a researcher, it’s probably OK. Your weakness should never be a core skill needed for the job.
In terms of mistakes, give one that didn’t have a huge negative impact. The best examples are mistakes that are easily resolved. An example might be “I was working on a project late at night and there were a few typos. I was able to catch them when I looked at the project the next morning and I was able to fix it in time. However, now I always make sure check my work in the moment before I submit it no matter how late it is.”
3. Show How You’ve Learned or Grown from Your Mistakes or Weaker Areas
All negative experiences can be useful as long as you are able to learn from them. Instead of freaking out about a mistake you’ve made or something you’re not as good at, learn from them. If you can show your interview what you took away from a less than ideal situation it shows them that you have the maturity and insight to learn and evolve. That is a really important quality!
4. Show Professionalism and Maturity
All negative questions are going to be about less than ideal moments and situations. Especially when you’re asked about working with a difficult client, boss or teammate, be really careful about how you answer. Showing professionalism and maturity in this type of answer will be key. You always want to be diplomatic because hey, dealing with difficult people is something that will come up in any job and you need to know how to work through that without letting them get to you.
Next time you get a negative question in an interview, don’t shy away from it. Be real and honest, share information that will not get in the way of you being hired, show that you are able to constantly learn and evolve, and always show off your professionalism. If you can do those four things, you will be able to master any negative interview question.
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