How To Answer Interview Questions About Criticism

Business team conducting interview with prospective employee
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Hiring managers and employers ask a lot of different types of questions as they try to determine whether you have any weaknesses that would interfere with your ability to perform the job you've applied for. It can feel a little like you're walking a minefield when you're engaged in an interview where questions are hurled at you one after another.

One question you might be asked is, "What was the biggest criticism you received from your boss in your last job?" To say that answering this one might be tricky is an understatement. Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

What Interviewers Want to Know 

Interviewers have a few goals in mind with this question. First, this is another way to ask about your weaknesses. While employers want to know what you're good at, they're also curious about areas where you're less skilled. 

This question is also a good way to get a sense of your character. Does criticism make you defensive or angry? 

Finally, interviewers will also be looking for your long-term response, and the types of adjustments you make in response to feedback. 

How to Answer Questions About Criticism You've Received

You should be ready to share an issue or an incident or two that have surfaced over time, but pick a performance area that's not central to the job you're applying for. Try to select an issue that you've addressed and improved upon but that you don't have to excel at in order to be superb in the position being offered. 

For example, if your supervisor once critiqued your public speaking skills, you can mention this and explain that it led you to take steps to enhance those skills. But again, this approach works best if excellent public speaking skills are not crucial to the new position you're applying for. You don't want to raise a red flag that you might once have had trouble with this particular skill.

If you can't think of anything right away, take some time to reflect. That's good because it shows that you're taking the question seriously. You can even use this tactic if you've actually considered the question in advance and already know the answer you want to give. 

Be careful about supplying glib, clichéd answers here, too. Don't bother pointing out that a particular weakness also can be interpreted as a strength. A good interviewer will already realize this, and most interviewers will be turned off by statements like, "I'm a perfectionist and I put too much pressure on myself."

Although you don't want to mention a deal-breaker criticism, you also don't want to mention something very minor, like a critique of your filing skills when you are applying for an executive-level position. This type of response will make you seem like you're not truly engaging with the question. 

Examples of the Best Answers 

Example Answer #1

My manager pointed out that during meetings, I seemed more absorbed in my computer and phone than people speaking. I'd been using my devices to take notes, but it was easy to get distracted by the ping of arriving emails. Now, I disconnect my device from the internet in meetings so I can't get distracted by the ping of new emails and messages from colleagues. 

Why It Works: This is a very honest, relatable response. (Many of us find ourselves distracted by our phones buzzing and beeps.) The candidate shows how they responded to negative feedback by adjusting their habits. 

Example Answer #2

After sharing a draft of a planned presentation with my manager, I received a lot of feedback about tiny errors. I'd had typos and mislabeled charts on several slides. My manager really called me out on it. At first, I felt a bit defensive: I work in sales, not as a writer or editor. But I realized the importance of these details, and how they can make a poor impression. Now, I leave myself enough time to review my work in depth, and seek out feedback from colleagues prior to sharing presentations with higher-ups. 

Why It Works: In this answer, the candidate shows how they adjusted their behavior in response to negative feedback. And, they're honest about having a poor reaction to it initially, but then moving beyond that defensive response.

Tips for Giving the Best Response

Keep these strategies in mind as you come up with your response: 

  • Name a significant critique. Stating a very small critique can feel like you're avoiding the core aspect of the question. 
  • Be sincere. Employers want an indication that you're willing to recognize your weaknesses and to take steps to improve. They don't want to hear that you're flawless and perfect because—let's face it—who is? If you indicate that you are, you're clearly fibbing, and that's not a good foot to start out on. 
  • Show how you responded in a positive way. Remember, your interviewer is using this question to get a sense of your character and how you cope with negative feedback. You want to show that you heard the feedback and responded to it, either by changing your behavior or improving a skill. 

What Not to Say 

Some answers to this question will work against you. Here's what to avoid. 

  • Dodging the question. A tough interviewer won't let you off the hook easily on this one, so don't even try to dodge the question. If you're in the unusual situation where your performance reviews have been absolutely flawless, you can point that out and even offer to provide evidence of your stellar reviews. But to simply say, "I've never been criticized" can lead to poor results, and saying that you don't remember any criticism can be just as bad. Think back; at some point in time, someone must have questioned something you said or did. Your interviewer will find it unlikely that you've never received any criticism at all. 
  • Don't lie. You also want to stay away from any dishonest stories. It's too easy to get caught in a fib, and that's more disqualifying to interviewers than a poor answer. 
  • Don't be negative—or too personal. Don't speak cynically about the person who criticized you or your work. That reflects poorly on you, making it seem like you can't handle any negative feedback.
  • Don't disqualify yourself. While you don't want to fib, you can be choosy about what you share. For instance, if your boss once critiqued your ability to stick to deadlines, and you're applying for a deadline-focused role, you might want to mention another critique you've received. That way, you won't be informing interviewers of a weak spot in an important area. 

Possible Follow-Up Questions 

  • What is your greatest weakness? - Best Answers
  • What part of the job will be most challenging for you? - Best Answers
  • What can we expect from you in the first 60 days on the job? - Best Answers
  • Describe a difficult work situation and how you overcame it. - Best Answers

Key Takeaways

  • While it's hard to talk about weaknesses during an interview, don't dodge the question, since this can make you seem dishonest or lacking in self-awareness. 
  • Keep in mind that how you frame your answer to job interview questions about weaknesses and criticism is as important as what you say.
  • Avoid complaining about the feedback, being defensive, or speaking negatively about a former manager—instead, focus on growth and positive changes you've made in response to the feedback.