In yesterday’s Career Journal (a publication of The Wall Street Journal), #1 of the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions was once again dissected, analyzed, and solved.

What’s your greatest weakness?

In the annals of interviewing, we know a wag once offered the best answer ever heard — “Chocolate.” — and that’s when it was time to retire that corn-pone question from the canon. But it lingers.

The question itself reveals what is perhaps an employer’s greatest weakness — stupid interview questions. “My greatest weakness is intolerance for psycho-babble that passes for a job interview. Do you want me to show you how I’ll do this job, or shall we move on to what animal I’d be if I could be any animal?”

The Career Journal addresses this interview hurdle thus: “The key? Thorough preparation.” Preparation for what? To come up with yet another clever answer that the interviewer hasn’t yet read in some interview book? I suppose one could prepare diligently by reading the hundreds of books that offer clever answers.

Then the article offers this pinnacle of organizational idiocy:

“Last month, an aspiring executive director of a nonprofit group in suburban San Francisco nearly jeopardized his selection because his reply to a variation of the weakness question ignored one of its core values, according to Ms. Klaus, a board member there. Near the end of his interview, she wondered whether he might have problems with any aspects of the job. “No, I am confident I could do it all,” the prospect declared.

“His flip comment dismayed Ms. Klaus, because she felt he lacked awareness of his weaknesses. She says his response raised doubts among board members that “he would be able to take critical feedback,” an attribute the organization values highly.

“Because the man was well-qualified, the board gave him a second interview — and demanded a fuller explanation of his weak spots. He said he had been “unprepared for that question and nervous about coming out with a big fatal flaw,” then described his tendency to make decisions too fast during workplace crises. Board members’ doubts disappeared, and they picked him for the nonprofit’s top job.”

Let’s look at this story a little more carefully:

1. The candidate told them he could do whatever the job required. That’s flip? That’s an opportunity! Here’s a guy I want to talk to further!

Employers are so busy following the rules of interviewing that they forget they’re supposed to be hiring exceptional candidates. This guy might have been full of himself, but how many candidates are so confident? The next step could have been to outline for him a handful of the key problems and challenges they needed him to tackle if they hired him. Let’s see if this duck can fly! Can he really do what he says? After all, we’re looking for the best ducks, right?

Start with the confident ones, Dopey, because why do you want to mess around with applicants who admit to less?

2. Instead, they brow-beat the guy into submission and he makes the confession they want to hear.

Threaten a candidate with loss of an opportunity, and he’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. “I’m just a poor, unworthy, nervous nellie… Thanks for the second chance to tell you what you want to hear… I’ll confess to my flaws now, and I’ll humiliate myself a bit to prove my worthiness since flaws seem to be a big deal around here…”

As soon as the guy broke down and told them what they wanted to hear, “Board members’ doubts disappeared, and they picked him for the nonprofit’s top job.”

I predict the guy will be gone within six months. They hired a confident manager who now must behave like a wuss to succeed. As soon as the candidate expressed his doubts, the board’s doubts disappeared. How Zen.

There are so many things an employer can do in an interview to figure out whether a candidate can do a job. So why do they ask stupid questions for which a thousand answers have already been scripted in books and workshops?

So, let’s have at it. What’s your experience been with What’s your greatest weakness?

  1. Agree – there doesn’t seem to be any limit to the stupid questions invented by people with nothing better to do – and no skills to do anything useful.

    I was asked that question once in the last 45 years, in an interview with both HR and the potential manager. My answer was pretty much your example. I stated that I have no patience with idiots, at any level or in any position. I simply ignore them and get on with my work.
    The HR rep was predictably upset, but the manager had a hard time surpressing his amusement, probably at HR’s discomfort. I got the job, did it well, got along great with the manager – and successfully ignored HR.

  2. As our host noted, this is a silly question, and is far to frequently asked.

    My standard response is something along the lines of … “Attributes and characteristics can be strengths or weaknesses depending on the situation. Humility can be a strength most of the time, but a weakness is a crisis when confidence is required. I sometimes have the opposite problem; I tend to be confident when perhaps humility would be better.”

  3. CORRECTIONS! Fat fingers in a hurry …

    As our host noted, this is a silly question, and is far *too* frequently asked.

    My standard response is something along the lines of … “Attributes and characteristics can be strengths or weaknesses depending on the situation. Humility *is* a strength most of the time, but *can be* a weakness *in* a crisis when confidence is required. I sometimes have the opposite problem; I tend to be confident *even* when perhaps humility would be *more effective*.”

  4. My stock answer is something like…
    I’m not aware of any deficiencies that would affect my ability to do this job. I am human and make mistakes; however, I try to learn from them.

  5. My only weakness is when asked the next stock question from your list of “I you were a tree, what kind would you be”, I always answer pussywillow and laugh.

  6. I was in round two or three for a job I thought I really wanted, and was interviewing with the CEO when the infamous “weakness” question came up.

    I paused and reflected, and decided WTH, I’ve got to say something, so I emoted on how I had to build in extra time to get projects completed because sometimes I had a hard time figuring out how long something would take to finish.

    I might as well have said that I eat little children for lunch. The CEO went ballistic, saying “oh no, that’s terrible,” or words to that effect.

    Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, but I had the last laugh as less than a month later the CEO was ousted and the company ended up merging with a competitor.

  7. A variation on this theme. A former supervisor I used as a reference told me he was asked by the HR director of a company I had interviewed with what my weaknesses were. He replied, “I don’t look for a person’s weaknesses when they are effecient and excellent at getting the job done.” Even the director admitted that was a pretty good answer. I got the job, but can’t say for sure if that response was one of the reasons. Needless to say I treated for lunch!

  8. When interviewing for my present job, I answered that “I am a person who needs to organize myself, by keeping proper notes in the little book”.

    After the formal interview, when she followed me to the exit, I mentioned to the HR rep that I think this is a somewhat troublesome question, because if you are smart you will hide your significant weaknesses, and instead answer something that can be regarded both as a weakness and a strength. Therefore, many people will say that they are stubborn, because that may also be a good thing.

    “Yes, 90% of the candidates reply that they are stubborn”, she replied, and acknowledged that the question on weaknesses is somewhat troublesome.

    IMHO, the question may serve one purpose: To weed out those who have too big egos and answer “No, I don’t have any weaknesses at all”. But those should be identified in other ways.

  9. Hey Nick Corcodilos, very well written…I’ve been in this game twenty years and after a while this line of dialouge all becomes rhetorical rhetoric. However,I must say I like your post…It’s the first piece I’ve read since the nineties that actually made some sense to me…Damn, now I’m going to have to write an astute response…stay tuned

  10. I just make it short and sweet and say I need to brush up on Access…

  11. FYI

  12. How about the applications that after each job entry you are asked to what you liked best and least about the job? (Similar to the “What’s your greatest weakness). When my husband was job hunting he faced this quandry. The questions were asked even about his military experience. His answers: He liked shooting people best. He least liked being shot at. Needless to say he did not get the job.

  13. Like Ray (on Feb. 4) I usually say that my biggest weakness is supporting ignorant bosses when I should have exposed their ignorance and wastefulness at the annual shareholders’ meeting. I’ve scared the sox off many an idiot boss by being a shareholder and asking them if they’d like their shenanegans exposed for all to see.

  14. I normally answer that my biggest weakness is learning how to stay organized, but I also normally add that I am progressing and getting better at it each day.

  15. I think the best answer to any stupid question is to answer, politely but firmly, with another question: “Please tell me how this question and its answer is relevant to how I can do the job for your company/organization”.

    This way, you turn the problem around and challenges them on the sensibility of the question, without being rude or offensive.

  16. The only acceptable answer is kryptonite.

  17. I recently went on a job interview and asked whether there were specific questions the employer wanted to ask. His response, “I don’t know, this is your chance to SELL yourself.” I had already provided him with a detailed resume and cover letter that provided detailed examples of accomplishments, etc. So I was surprised by his response, and wondered if it occurred to him that I was also looking at him as a potential boss. I left still loving the job itself but not at all certain that they guy wasn’t a complete jerk.

  18. What a great cornucopia of good ideas, even if some might get you tossed out the door. (Hey, that could save you the trouble of having to walk out!)

    Among the serious ones, I particularly like the reference who told the employer, “I don’t look for a person’s weaknesses when they are effecient and excellent at getting the job done.” Now, that says it, and slaps the employer upside the head at the same time!

  19. ”My greatest weakness is intolerance for psycho-babble that passes for a job interview. Do you want me to show you how I’ll do this job, or shall we move on to what animal I’d be if I could be any animal?”


    I recall one interview where I was asked one of those similar questions “Why should I hire you?”

    My answer? (Paraphrased)

    “Because I’m a skilled Engineer, with a strong history of accomplishments – which we’ve discussed – and a lot of education – which we’ve also discussed. I will give you my honest opinion, subject to being willing to change as new evidence comes up. I may not always agree with you, I may vehemently disagree with you, but I will do so based on facts and my experience. If you want a proven, skilled contributor able to stand his ground in difficult circumstances, I’m him. If you want a sycophant to repeat what you say blindy, buy a parrot.”

    I didn’t get the job. ;) But then, I’d already determined I didn’t want it based on their treatment of me during the HR drone’s condescending interrogation.

  20. David Hunt:

    I wonder how many companies realize how many qualified candidates they lose to their competition because HR plays authoritarian parlour games in interviews? I covered this in an article some years ago: “Death by Lethal Reputation: The demise of a company.”

    One of my clients asked me to review and report on hiring practices that had apparently poisoned the company’s well. It’s still relevant:

  21. Thanks to all for their replies. they have boosted my spirits in that I am not alone. When my boss indicated that I was not team player to the feelings of other groups not doing their jobs, I told him this true conversation: Some time ago I spoke to a young Supervisor with no qualifications that was promoted ahead of those that were more qualified. I ask him how he managed that? His reply was “Tell the boss whatever they want to hear, Right or Wrong does not matter! If you happen to be right, everyone will be heros, If you are Wrong, then you respond with: Oh Well…. We tried! I then told the Boss, Its your call: would you like me to tell you what you “Want to” or “Need to hear?”

  22. Hairyman,

    It can be costly to say something like that to your boss, but I give you credit for doing it. These articles are for fearless people who aren’t afraid of being lined up and shot:

  23. I have been asked this question in a hand-full of interviews.

    In each and every one I have walked out but not before saying ” The answers to this question would be obvious if we had really discussed the job and how I would perform it.”

    Why would anyone even consider working for a company that allows this sort of drivel.


  24. Interesting articles on HR and the interviewing process. I’ve often wondered how VPs of HR or CEOs could accept that for most organizations goal one for an applicant is to bypass HR. This tells me that either HR is not up to the task or the company is hiring poor candidates. Either is a poor reflection of HR.

    I think forward looking companies will start doing an overhaul of HR. HR is broken; particularly when it comes to hiring.

  25. While I dont think I am a doormat, I certainly don’t have the chutzpas of many of the folks who have replied to this question. It might be different if I were already holding a job now, but as someone in their third month of being laid off, I am willing to “play the game” of this and other “classic” questions. To me, it says, yes, I have even prepped for these kinds of silly/moldy oldie questions for this interview.

    What you are really asking is if I can understand that you want me to display a kind of thoughtful modesty at this moment — see how I can do it!–and so I give an answer that is not too hackney and not of big importance to my competence at the job.

    Sure, the question/answer does not signal anything but “I know how the job-getting dance is done” but that is still perceived to be of value to those who have the ability to give me a needed job. So I do it.

  26. Mel, you’re so right. You gotta play the game to get a job. Even if the questions are “stoopid”.

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  28. The writer of this article seems to be a SMART one, something VERY, VERY RARE in the HR world.

    In fact, I always wondered how was it that the most important part of an organization (which is made of PEOPLE) ended up being filled up with such dumb and mediocre people?