How to answer “What was your greatest disappointment?”

This is yet another question you might encounter at interview. It is normally framed like a competency question and can be a bit tricky.  The interviewer is trying to get an idea of how you handle adversity; the trouble is that you might not have had any significant adversity to deal with, or at least none that you want to share at interview! So how are you going to answer?

What not to do?

You don’t want to sound arrogant. Don’t go for the wide eyed look, accompanying an incredulous denial that you have ever been disappointed. This is unlikely to endear you to an interviewer, who probably has encountered one or two setbacks in his or her life.

This is not the time to bring up a genuine disaster. I certainly wouldn’t recommend talking about one of life’s great griefs like the loss of someone you loved. While I might have been “disappointed” that my mother did not live to see me build a successful career, I would not want to put myself in the position of talking about this at interview. The emotions involved go far beyond any disappointment and you risk putting the interviewer in an embarrassing position or, worse, upsetting yourself and losing focus.

laugh and cry buttons300On the other hand you also need to avoid the utterly trivial. “I was disappointed when I burnt my dinner because I was looking forward to eating it” risks a laugh which could just be at you rather than with you! Use this approach only if you can’t think of anything else and then just to buy yourself a bit more time. Start the laugh yourself. That way you can be sure that you’re all laughing together and you might come across as the sort of person the interviewer would like to have in the office.

Dodging the question altogether is not really an option either. This approach involves talking about how you always learn from disappointment and change your behaviour accordingly. All very laudable, but it does need an example if it is to be credible. You risk the interviewer repeating the question to allow you to have another attempt, or you might accumulate a negative comment on the interviewer’s mark sheet. Definitely worth avoiding!

So, how can you find the happy compromise?

Start by thinking of an example which will allow you to showcase your resilience and your ability to overcome a problem. The exam which didn’t go according to plan might work. You have probably already had to disclose your marks on an application form, so you won’t be telling your prospective employer anything new and you can talk about what you learnt. Perhaps your disappointment made you reassess your work ethic, or take some advice on how to improve?

Another option might be the disappointing decision you took for the greater good, but you’ll have to be careful. It could be useful, for example, to talk about how you gave up an extra-curricular activity to focus on your work and about the disappointment this caused you. You won’t want to be implying though that you don’t do anything but work!

You could also talk about the time you bowed to a majority decision which was at odds with what you wanted. You need to take care here too. If you ended up in this position your powers of persuasion obviously didn’t work! Do you need to be particularly persuasive for your preferred job? It’s also quite difficult to talk about what you learnt without potentially sounding petulant. How is this comment going to go down?

“I did what everyone else wanted against my better judgement and it turned out badly. It proved that I was right all along.”

If you are going to use this example you’d be better sticking with the:

“I went along with the majority and although I was initially disappointed it turned out fine. I learnt that it is important sometimes to be prepared to concede a point and that there can be advantages in doing this. It can give you a wholly new perspective on something.”

Whatever you decide on this question, it definitely falls into the category of one you’ll want to ponder in advance of the interview.

2 thoughts on “How to answer “What was your greatest disappointment?”

  1. I have been disappointed by very little. My career in [xyz] has allowed me work with many talented clients, and managers. I make decisions with care, and live with the consequences. Disappointment is just like living with regret—I chose to focus on the future.

    • This is an interesting comment, but I am not convinced that it would be a good answer for a new graduate, with little job experience to give. Coming from someone like that I think there is a risk of sounding arrogant, some employers may be happy for that, many would worry.

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