Ken Goldstein: The Most Terrifying Job Interview Question of All

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We’ve all been there, on one side of the desk or the other, possibly both. You’re interviewmaking the turn on the final few minutes of a later stage job interview. You’ve covered background, work history, strengths, interests, team compatibility, maybe even a few unnecessary logic problems tossed in so the interviewer can show you how clever he or she is. You’ve answered the all too predictable homestretch inquiry: Where do you see yourself in five years? You’ve even managed to answer it well, mixing ambition, humility, and a tiny dose of self-effacing humor. And then it comes, that one ugly question you thought surely the interviewer had forgotten to ask, but you knew was loaded deep in the cannon ready to be fired:

What would you consider some of your areas for improvement?

Gasp! There it is, unmistakable in its clarity, a full-blown cliché in its entrance, unforgiving in its existential presence. You must answer. Let’s play it out three ways that could happen and see what might land.

Scenario 1: I’m Okay, You’re a Meddling Schmoe

Interviewer: Are there any areas of personal development you’d like to improve on in your next position?

Applicant: Uh, no, not really.

Interviewer: None at all? Surely there is something you’d like to do better at this job than you demonstrated at another job.

Applicant: No, can’t say there is. Maybe when I was younger there were some issues, but I think I’ve long since put those to bed.

Interviewer: I’m curious, tell me about some of those areas that needed polish when you were younger.

Applicant: To tell you the truth, I can’t much remember. That was a long time ago, before I figured things out.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of defensiveness, dishonestly, being unprepared, and shutting down the conversation. Interviewer also loses, may have eliminated a decent candidate from the queue by being strident and intrusive.

Scenario 2: I’m Not Okay, You Busted Me in Open Court

Interviewer: You really do seem well-qualified and a potentially excellent fit for this position. I was wondering, are there any areas of improvement you want to focus on that we haven’t covered that might be worth discussing?

Applicant: Well, to be honest, I don’t suffer fools all that well. When certain people on a team aren’t on their game, I can he a little harsh in my criticism.

Interviewer: That’s interesting. So by harsh, you try to rally those around you to give their all and make sure the team’s output is always at its best?

Applicant: I wish that were the case. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that when someone is an idiot, there isn’t much anyone on a team can do to get them to perform. The simple truth is, a team needs to weed out its weakest players. I know I’m at the top of my game, so I only want to play with people at the top of their games. You said your company was committed to excellence. We’re fully aligned there. I will do all I can to make excellence happen, but that can get messy, you know?

Interviewer: Right, so what I think I hear you saying is you’d like to focus a little in the coming years on tolerance and more productive ways of motivating your colleagues.

Applicant: Yeah, I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work. And come on, tolerance? Do you want people who tolerate idiots on your payroll along with the idiots? That’s an expensive proposition.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of self-centered obsession, lack of tact, lack of diplomacy, and potential sociopathic narcissism. Interviewer wins on the count of revelation, transparency, and avoidance of dozens of team sit-downs in search of collegiality.

Scenario 3: I Want to Grow, Together We Can Get to New Heights

Interviewer: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you today. One question that comes up sometimes in interviews—and I know this can be a little awkward—but are there any growth areas in your career where you might want to advance from good to great in your next position?

Applicant: If you’re asking are there any areas where I can improve, the answer is most certainly yes. How could it be otherwise? Every job we tackle is an opportunity, and part of that opportunity is the chance to get better at what we do. For me, it’s about carving out the time to dissect the prior day’s work before continuing with the next day’s work, no matter how fast things are moving.

Interviewer: Are you saying that in the past you have been too spontaneous, too impulsive around getting more done before you have nailed down the details of what already has been accomplished?

Applicant: That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I don’t think I have ever thought about it that way. No, that doesn’t really sound like me. But teams in high performance environments tend to feed off each other’s energy, and sometimes the tiniest details that didn’t seem to matter the day before really do open or close doors to the next phase of development. What I’d like to be able to do is take a leadership role in planning each day’s work more carefully, rather than just jumping in and getting stuff done because we’re on a deadline.

Interviewer: Around here we are always on deadlines. Do you think you’ll be able to get your teammates on board to devote the extra thought cycles to strategy before action?

Applicant: Actually I do, because I come to you with many examples from my past work where forging ahead without reflection cost us time instead of creating it. I think as I work on this myself, others will see the value, and together all our work will rise to a higher level.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant wins on proposing a clearly valuable area of self-improvement that isn’t so much a confession as it is a rallying cry for shared experience in an improved workplace. Interviewer wins because an honest relationship has been established where probing does not lead to indictment, but authenticity and leadership by example.

Can a Minus Be a Plus?

If a minus can’t be a plus, why would an interviewer ask the question? That’s the whole point of asking an applicant if they have any self-identified areas for improvement. In Scenario 1, the Applicant bats away the question, the Interviewer is immediately suspicious, and no relationship can be established. In Scenario 2, the Applicant is unnecessarily candid, to the point of celebrating a shortcoming rather than addressing it, leaving the Interviewer permanently fearful and unable to bridge to a relationship. In Scenario 3, the Applicant is ready for the question, hungry to embrace personal challenge as real opportunity, and the Interviewer’s imagination can blossom to a broadening relationship that benefits the entire organization.

Two key takeaways: First, once you’re past competency, an interview is about character and compatibility—in other words, forming a relationship. If you don’t use the interview to explore the underpinnings of a relationship such that the values of a candidate align with the values of a company, a real fit isn’t going to be there. Second, if you know an interview question has a 75% or better chance of being asked, don’t wait until the question is asked to form an answer, and don’t become defensive because you don’t like the question. Thoughtfulness and preparation are your best friends before you walk into a room. You’re going to get asked these things, so please think about them in advance and always answer with authority as well as authenticity.

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This article originally appeared on Beyond.com

Ken Goldstein

Ken Goldstein is the author of the national bestseller This is Rage and the newly released Endless Encores. Visit his website for more.

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