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Those of us who have a few years under our belts can remember the interview question fads: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be,” “If you were a car…,” “If you were a vegetable…,” and so on.

Thankfully, interviewing fads have evolved a bit over the years. Although different industries have some variations on what’s in, a common theme is the love for negative questions. Behavioral questions like, “Tell me about the last time you failed to hit your goal,” and, “Tell me about the biggest professional mistake you made in the last year,” are in vogue and, unlike yesteryear’s questions about trees, vegetables, and animals, these questions have validity!

The Purpose of Negative Interview Questions

When a candidate hears a negative question, there’s a panic that sets in as they decide whether to accept the premise of the question—that they have faults. Worse yet, would they like to discuss those faults with a group of relative strangers with whom they’re asking to work? However, negative questions hold significant value for the interviewer. Negative questions require the candidate to discuss weaknesses. During that time, you’ll get to see aspects of the candidate that give you very useful indications as to their humility, accountability, and integrity.

An Example

If a candidate who is asked, “Tell me about the last time you got coached from your leader on a developmental weakness or a performance failure of yours,” answers the question by ultimately tying the failure to someone else on the team, the candidate is communicating a lack of accountability and integrity. The question is less about the actual failure. Rather, the question is trying to determine:

• If the candidate has weaknesses that are part of the core functions of this job,
• How the candidate takes feedback from a leader,
• Does the candidate learn from mistakes, and
• If the candidate is willing to admit an imperfection in a stressful environment (like the interview).

For those on the hunt reading this, a far better answer is to embrace the premise that you are not perfect and discuss a time when your leader spoke with you about a performance miss. Keep the topic away from core aspects of the job you’re pursuing, own the issue (after all, you picked the example), and absolutely, positively end the answer by telling the interviewer what measures you have put in place so that, if given this new position, your leader would never know this used to be an issue of yours. Wrap-up your answer by talking about successes you’ve had since the date of this performance snafu, making sure to mention that those successes leverage the same skill-set that had originally let you down. In short, own the mistake and convey that you’ve definitively conquered this short-coming.

Interviewers Need to Be Prepared for Sloppiness

As an aside, interviewers should not be concerned if they need to redirect the candidate who just got one of the many beloved negative questions. Particularly the highly coveted passive candidates may struggle to think of an example of them failing to deliver on something, let alone deciding if they want to talk with you about it. After all, passive candidates by definition have not been interviewing recently, so they’ll be out of practice.

The candidate may initially say they can’t think of a time when the question has applied. No problem. Give them some time (i.e. 5-10 seconds) to think of an example. If they still can’t think of anything, skip the question and rephrase it later in the interview.
Other candidates may try to answer the question by mentioning what really amounts to a strength, saying they work too hard or that they’re too committed to achieving results. As the interviewer, you can call their bluff and ask for a specific time when this deeply-rooted commitment to hitting a deadline has resulted in a temporary black-eye for their career, or you can save a minute or two by redirecting the candidate up-front.

For more information about the value of skillfully asking negative questions, visit this short article from Monster or this from MSN.