Some of the favorite questions of an interviewer revolves around a negative: “What setbacks have you experienced on the job?”, “What was your biggest disappointment?” or “Where have you fallen short and why?”. Negative questions serve a distinct objective for the interviewer: To see how the candidate responds. Some will stumble, while others will try to put on a positive spin.
These questions are not looking for substantive replies, but rather whether you take responsibility or blame others for the failure. Some of the usual suspects for blame are: Co-workers, your boss, the organizational culture, unclear directions, policies, inadequate resources, lack of training, politics, time constraints, the weather and the old favorite, or “My dog ate the report”.
What the interviewer is looking for focuses on how you define the problem, if you take responsibility for the outcome and how you made good for it. Did you shuffle it off to another group? Did you push it up to your boss? Did you pull the team together to solve the problem?
Interviewers are looking for qualities like honesty, integrity, leadership, responsibility and those attributes that will make for a good employee. The “failure” question helps to surface those qualities. How should you respond to those questions? Focus on the specific incident versus a generic overview. Talk about what you did or didn’t do to identify and solve the issue? Emphasize the task not the process? Don’t concentrate on the cause, but rather lay out the strategy that you implemented to achieve the outcome.
Another insight the interviewer is looking for is the time it takes to recognize your mistake and how you did it? Usually self-awareness takes longer than open feedback from coworkers, clients or third parties. Candidates that engage in a 360 review with those involved are more likely to catch problems well ahead of those candidates who individually drive the project or process alone, without comment, support or critique from others. Organizations are looking for candidates who ask: “How can we improve our results?” or “How can we perform at a higher level?” from others.
Hiring managers will often ask you to describe your greatest weakness. If you respond by saying that you don’t have any, you’ll come across as arrogant or dishonest. Be open, like: “I’ve been uncomfortable with public speaking, but recently I completed a development program and gave a strong presentation to an executive group last week”.
Just as interviewing is an art and not a science, so is responding to an interviewer’s question. Understanding what the interviewer is looking for in their question is directly related to the success you’ll have as a candidate. I make sure my clients are prepared for the “negative” question with an answer that will move their candidacy forward. You need to be prepared as well.
An effective candidate understands why a question is being asked, and gives the “best” response.
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