Answering Interview Questions on Criticism Received From a Boss

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 as they come 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. 

Don't Decline to Answer 

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. 

First, you could come off as sounding glib, even if you're quite sincere. 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. 

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. 

Don't Be Dishonest—Or Rude

Along with avoiding the question entirely, or giving a pat response, you also want to stay away from any dishonest stories.

Be truthful in your response. It's too easy to get caught in a fib, and that's more disqualifying to interviewers than a poor answer. 

As well, don't speak negatively 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. 

Answering That Tricky Question

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.

Be careful about supplying glib, cliché 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. 

The Bottom Line 

Remember, employers are looking for sincere answers. They 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. 

In reality, while it can be hard to hear criticism, receiving it can also be helpful. In your answer, it can be helpful to focus mainly on your response to a critique. Companies value employees who do not get defensive when they receive negative feedback, and instead adapt or fix their behavior. A good strategy is to mention the criticism briefly and then expand on the steps you took after you received it.