A scene from the NBC comedy series, The Office, parodies an interview question and answer perfectly.
America’s favorite clueless manager, Michael Scott, is interviewing for a corporate promotion with his CFO and is asked about his great strengths.
“Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard, I care too much and sometimes, I can be too invested in my job.”
Puzzled by the answer, the CFO probes with, “OK. And your strengths?”
“Well, my weaknesses are actually my strengths.” Michael grins as if he just nailed the question while his CFO grimaces as if he just fell for a bad joke.
Doing the opposite of what Michael Scott does on this show is typically excellent career advice. Any interviewer who has listened to a clever answer like this cringed when watching that scene.
Bad Advice Is Now Common Practice
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. When asked about your failures or weaknesses in an interview, use it as an opportunity to humble brag about a real strength.
This advice is terrible and comes across as painfully transparent to any experienced interviewer. Hoping to show off their work ethic or passion, candidates dodge, duck, dip and dive to avoid answering a question they fear.
In a survey of 570 early-career professionals, WayUp found that questions about weaknesses and failure were the second most feared query in interviews. Young professionals assume this is a trick question meant to weed out the weakest candidates.
This misunderstanding stems from the false view that those who dare to fail are weak. The opposite is more likely the truth. Those who rarely fail spend their careers playing it safe.
What Is The Interviewer Looking For?
Your interviewer got to their position by taking a risk. They took chances to move up in their organization and often failed along the way. They understand that real growth occurs when someone experiences a setback and changes behavior as a result.
Interviewers are looking for several hints in your answer:
1. Are you confident enough to share defeats? Top performers see failure as a necessary step along the path to greater success. Achievers can drown out their misfires with many more successes and are not intimidated to talk openly about foundering.
2. Are you humble enough to honestly assess your setbacks? Ego can be a limiting factor in one’s career, as you can’t grow if you can’t admit to your role in defeat. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that people spent 25% more time working on a solution after focusing on their emotional response to an initial failure.
3. Do you grow from failure? Everyone gets knocked down, but the response is more important than the fall. Knowing that you will suffer setbacks if you accept the role, your interviewer is keenly interested in how much resilience you have.
Focus Your Answer On The Right Type Of Failures
Remember that you are not the only person who fails. The more success your interviewer has enjoyed, the longer the list of failures they have overcome. When asked this question, embrace it with some humor. I like to say something like, “How much time do we have?” This shows your interviewer that you embrace failure as a path to personal growth.
One failure that will hurt your chances is that which involves a lack of effort. This is one of the few variables we can control in life and is a transferable behavior in any function. If you failed on a project because you chose not to put in the time, your interviewer has no choice but to envision the same effort from you in the future. We have all come up short where effort was the culprit. These instances are not the ones to share in an interview.
There are several types of situation that best share what type of person you are.
1. The Knowledge Gap Failure: You took a run at a project that you are unequipped to handle and fell on your face. Perhaps, you accepted a sales role after working in operations. Your early months were humbling as hard work didn’t translate into results. You responded by studying top performers in the office, reading sales books, and listening to sales podcasts. After a challenging first year, you came back to finish in the top ten the following year.
2. The Poor Fit Failure: You always wanted to play for the varsity basketball team but just didn’t have the athletic ability. After being cut the first three years, you finally made the team your senior year. Though you didn’t play often, you were voted team captain by your teammates. You could find a similar setback in a business setting where you initially failed in a position that didn’t highlight your strengths and flourished when you changed positions.
3. The Approach Failure: You worked hard with poor results until a manager or mentor offered some direct feedback about your approach. Taking that feedback personally, you made sweeping changes and saw your results take off. This shows your future employer that you respond well to constructive criticism, a trait admired by any manager.
Before your interview, think through several examples. Many interviewers will probe for multiple answers to this simple question. Embrace your failure with confident, honest answers. Let the other candidates roll out the nauseating Michael Scott boilerplate response.