It’s official; “What is your greatest weakness?” is the most difficult question among 4

It’s almost inconceivable that “What is your greatest weakness?” is a question still asked in interviews, but many job seekers I’ve asked say they’re getting the weakness question in one form or another, which means that hiring authorities see some value in it. Mind boggling.

Branding Pro Kevin Turner has interviewed thousands of people during his career in marketing and sales, and he shares the same thought:

“Its uncomfortable to answer because who really wants to admit that they have a real weakness. I hope someday this question goes away but I don’t think it will anytime soon. So we have to be ready to ask it and digest the answers.

I polled LinkedIn members, of which 11,079 have voted at this writing, asking which four questions they think is most difficult. “What is your greatest weakness?” was one of them, and it received the highest number of votes. Here’s the result of the numbers each question has received:

  • What is your greatest weakness? 4,005
  • Tell me about yourself. 2,442
  • Why should we hire you. 2,508
  • Tell us about a time you made a mistake. 2,124

What is your greatest weakness?

Executive Resume Writer Laura Smith-Proulx further bemoans the “weakness question.” As a former recruiter, she writes:

Asking about a candidate’s weakness has always struck me as useless. After all, they’re interviewing to tell you why they’re the RIGHT person for the job and now you’re asking a question to seemingly stop the flow of positive information. (I never asked this of a candidate!) It also forces the job seeker to come up with a positive spin on the question.

Agreed 100%. And what candidate in their right mind would disclose their greatest weakness? Going into the interview they should have determined which weakness is relevant but not too relevant. In other words, it won’t kill their chances of getting the job.

On the other hand, a valid reason for asking this question is to see how candidates react. Will they answer the question calmly, or will they slide under the table? Self-awareness is one key element of emotional intelligence. A candidate who answers honestly will earn points from interviewers.

Tell me about yourself

This question (really a directive) came in as the third most difficult question according to the poll. The problem with this question is how candidates should answer it. Should they talk about their high school years, or how their kids are doing, or list off a ton of platitudes of themselves? No to all.

Recruiter and Job-Search Ally Ed Han finds this question troubling:

As a recruiter and job seeker ally, it often seems to me that while most people say they hate greatest weakness, in actual practice I find “tell me about yourself” generates by far the worst responses.

“Tell me about yourself” is often the trigger for a five-ten minute soliloquy. The interviewer doesn’t want your life story: they want to know your unique value proposition, why are you highly qualified for the position, or at least well positioned to perform the job at a high level.

The directive, “Tell me about yourself” has its merits because it requires the candidate to have their elevator pitch prepared. As well, they need to tailor it to the position’s requirements. Executive Career Coach Sarah Johnston concurs:

The most common question that I see job seekers struggle with is “tell me about yourself” because it can feel very open ended. The trick here though is to selectively tell them a 90-second version of your story as it relates to the pain points of the opportunity.

Ninety seconds is all it should take to tell employers about yourself. Any longer you’ll run the risk of boring the interviewers. I know my capacity for maintaining attention to an interview question is about a minute. As Ed says, don’t deliver a soliloquy.

Why should we hire you?

The question “Why should we hire you?” is a little better in terms of questions. But like the weakness question, it’s a bit of a cliche and one that candidates can formulate their answers going into the interview. Like the tell-me-about-yourself question, there’s a formula. One that Hannah Morgan spells out:

These are all questions job seekers struggle with and for different reasons. But I chose “why should we hire you” because while this seems pretty obvious, job seekers have difficulty connecting the dots in their answer.

You are looking for X and this is what I’ve done and the results
You are looking for Y and this is how I’ve done that and outcomes
Most importantly, based on these things I’ve learned in the interview, this is why I would like to work here.
Not exactly those words, but the idea!

This is all find and good if you know about the company, but what if you haven’t prepared for the interview, you haven’t researched the position and company. Recruiter Raegan Hill writes:

The reason is, this question often asked during the beginning phase of an interview – when the professional still needs more information about the role and company before they are able to thoughtfully and intentionally answer the question in the context in which it is asked.

This sounds like a trap to me. Shame on candidates who don’t know the position and company by heart.

Tell me about a time when you made a mistake

To me, the directive, “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake” is the most challenging of the four questions, as it requires candidates to tell a story and tests their sell-awareness…to a point. Based on the poll, the voters don’t agree.

In my experience, candidates tend to swallow the honest pill when asked about a failure. Why’s this? It might have something to do with be unprepared; they go into an interview thinking that interviewers won’t ask them about times they failed. Good interviewers will.

I chose this question as the most difficult one. Here’s why. Behavioral-based questions throw people for a loop. They’re not familiar with telling a story using the S.T.A.R (situation, task, actions, result) formula. Rather, candidates are used to traditional questions, such as the other three in the poll.

What interviewers hear, even from the higher-level job seekers, are speculative answers and not specifics. This is because candidates haven’t prepared for behavioral-based questions. They haven’t dissected the job ad to determine which are the most important requirements of the position.

Go to the poll to read some other great comments.

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