Stress weaknesses as strengths during interview


Dear Joan:
I have been interviewing for positions recently, and I have found myself stumped by certain questions that employers are asking. For example, "Tell me about your biggest disappointment," or "Tell me about your biggest weakness."

How does one respond to those questions? If I am honest won't I be disqualified? If I make something up, won't they see through it? Another question is, "Have you ever had a disagreement with your boss and how did you solve it?"

What are they trying to get at with these questions and can you provide some advice.

Most interviewers know how to find out about a candidate's technical competency. It's the personality and attitude that's harder to discover in an interview. Companies don't want to get stuck with a person who doesn't fit in. They also don't want someone who can't take feedback or who blames others. They want employees who can work with their manager and co-workers and solve problems in a positive way.

Today companies are even more cautious about hiring because they can't fire as easily and with all the lay offs, they want to make each hire a good one. That is why many interviewers are asking the kinds of questions you describe. They are trying to get a feel for how you interact with others in times of stress because it provides clues to how you deal with people.

Let's take a look at some answers to these questions: "Tell me about your biggest disappointment." The interviewer is attempting to find out how you handle failure and if you learn from it. The "disappointment" you tell about will also reveal how you handled the situation and why it failed.

For example, you might say, "I was passed over for promotion early in my career and it was quite a blow to my confidence. I went in to talk to my boss about it and to find out what I could do to improve and I realized from our conversation that I had a lot more to learn before I had the necessary experience to move up. Two years later, when I finally got the promotion, I knew I had earned it."

The question, "What is your biggest weakness," is often listed in job hunting books. The common advice is to take an appropriate strength and make it a "weakness." For example, if you're an accountant the response could be, "I just can't let go of details until each aspect of a project is finished." (Just the "weakness" the employer is looking for.) However, I think employers see through that and therefore, a more honest reply may be better. After all, the employer is trying to see how honest and introspective you are and if you are willing to improve.

A better response may sound something like this: "A few years ago, my boss told me that I had great ideas but I tend to get so excited about them that I charge off before checking to make sure everyone buys in. He pointed out that one of my pet projects had become stalled because some of the people I thought supported it were dragging their feet. He suggested that I ask people on my team or committee to "poke holes" in any idea before implementing it. It was valuable advice and today I find that by doing that I'm much more aware of potential problems and how to prevent them."

This response will tell the employer that you welcome constructive feedback, you act on it and you learn from your mistakes.

The employer asks about how you handled a disagreement with your boss to find out how you handle authority. A wise answer is one in which you talk about how you took steps to discuss the situation openly and honestly and how you were willing to listen and come to an agreement that was best for all involved.

The key is to choose situations that aren't very negative; show how you took positive steps to improve them and describe what you learned from them. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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