How to answer the weakness interview question

 

 

Note from Scot: While on vacation, I’ve asked some of my favorite business bloggers to share their knowledge here on Cube Rules. This post from Laurie Berenson, a Certified Professional Resume Writer and owner of Sterling Career Concepts, is a great review of the dreaded “What’s your greatest weakness” interview question.

———————

“Name one of your weaknesses” or “What’s your greatest weakness?” is a common interview question that doesn’t need to trip you up. While some recruiters have stopped using it after receiving too many canned answers, many others still include it in their repertoire. So what’s a candidate to do?  Plan for it. Prepare a thoughtful answer since, chances are, someone somewhere will pose the question.

None of us is perfect, and interviewers know that. We each have our strengths and our weaknesses. Job interviews focus primarily on identifying whether your strengths and abilities are a good match for the position at hand, but touching on your weaknesses, or allowing the interview to see how you view your weaknesses, is a valid part of the process.

The good news is that this question lends itself very well to preparation. There are several strategies to help formulate your answer. What you should not do is shrug your shoulders and respond, “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.” This only comes across as smug and that you’re unable to identify your own faults or areas for improvement, neither of which is flattering in a potential new employee.

Turn one of your strengths into a weakness. I’m a perfectionist. I expect too much of my colleagues. I take on too much by myself. I work too hard. In terms of possible answers, this is my least favorite as it comes across as phony. Even the most novice interviewer will want to roll his eyes and realize you’re reframing one of your strengths.

Using personal weaknesses rather than a professional.
Bringing information about your personal life into the interview is a distraction that only murks up the waters. Saying “I’m not a morning person” or “I’ve never been very athletic” sidelines the conversation and detracts from selling yourself as the best candidate for the job.

Sharing a real weakness that’s not relevant to the job.
This carries with it some risk. You may feel the trait is not at all related to your job performance, but the interviewer may feel differently or may think through repercussions of how it might affect your job performance. A staff accountant who shares he is not a good writer. An attorney who says she’s not the best with numbers. At first blush, it may seem like a safe answer, but admitting to a current weakness could come back to haunt you. It’s never smart to provide information that might hurt your candidacy.

Walk the interviewer through how you improved a past weakness. My all-time favorite approach is to think back to a past weakness of yours that you have corrected. Tell it in the form of a story – that it had been a problem for you at work, that you identified the problem, and that you took steps to improve the situation, and that it is no longer a problem for you. Finish your answer with words to the extent of “…and in fact, I am always looking for different ways to improve upon myself.” Answering the question this way not only demonstrates a willingness to think critically of your own skills, but also conveys that you welcome constructive criticism and are open to self-improvement.

Often times, answering the weakness question is not so much about confessing to a negative personality flaw as it is giving the interviewer a glimpse of how you view yourself and how well you make efforts to improve yourself.

About the author: Laurie Berenson, a Certified Professional Resume Writer and owner of Sterling Career Concepts, LLC, works with her clients one-on-one to highlight their professional strengths and accomplishments through highly customized career documents. More information including Laurie’s blog on all things career can be found at www.SterlingCareerConcepts.com.

Comments

  1. Emily says

    Whenever I am asked what my greatest weakness is, I always answer “chocolate.” :-) That always gets a chuckle and then I explain that I have high expectations of myself and others and I have a hard time working with someone that doesn’t have high expectations or has a lesser view of quality, but that I have learned that we all have different backgrounds and I learn to work with their standards and try to be as specific about quality as I can (remove the subjectivity).

  2. says

    @ Emily — Chocolate is a great answer! I get why hiring managers want to ask this question as it shows some level of analysis of your skills, but the manager should have a far greater need to understand your strengths.

    People engage in a job more, do better work and expand their skills when a manager focuses on giving tasks to people that reflect their strengths. I had a manager once that noted you should make your strengths so overwhelming that they overcome any weakness you may have. I’d agree with that.

    Working with your strengths is one of the things that can make work fun. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  3. Barbara Mueller says

    “None of us are perfect”? You got that right! “None” is the subject of that clause, so the verb should be singular: None of us is perfect.

    Sorry. I'm an English major. We're good at catching arcane grammar errors … and flipping burgers. Occasionally, we're also useful for proofreading someone's resume!

  4. says

    Barbara – I changed it just for you!

    Even though I didn't write the post, getting the singular with the plurals right in a sentence is my toughest writing problem.

  5. says

    Excellent post on the weakness interview question! I wrote two blog posts on how to answer the biggest weakness interview question:

    In this short post, I discuss the secret to answering the weakness question:
    blog.seattleinterviewcoach.com/2009/01/how-to-answer-what-is-your-biggest.html

    In this longer post, I analyze Barack Obama’s response to a variant of the common greatest weakness interview question, drawing inspiration from an interview between Katie Couric and Obama:
    blog.seattleinterviewcoach.com/2009/01/ace-your-job-interview-questions-like.html

    - Seattle Interview Coach

  6. Executive Resume says

    These are the questions that seems very weak but tells more about us to employer. It is good to be aware of such questions while preparing for interview. Most of time we also gives silly and unexpected answers.

    • Avatar of Scot Herrick says

      I always wanted to give silly and unexpected answers. Especially to silly questions, of which there are too many (where do you see yourself five years from now?).

  7. says

    Nice post, but you cannot “improve upon” yourself. You can “improve upon” a previous concept, but unless you are your own maker (something like self-modifying code), you can only “improve yourself”.
    Another way is to name a trait that is a weakness if it dominates your actions too much, and explain how you mitigate that. Mine is, “I used to be a perfectionist, but I learned from the software industry how to understand “good enough” and make aggressive deadlines.”
    Jennifer

  8. Sabrina says

    I agree with most of these, except the one about turning your strengths into weaknesses.  Saying something like, “I work too hard” is a clique answer and will be a turn off too many employers.  It is pretty obvious you are avoiding answering honestly.

    I usually use the last one, and talk about how I used to be a big procrastinator, but have improved in that area.

    • says

      The “hero’s journey” is the best answer — I had this weakness and it was severely tested in X,Y, and Z. This is what I did to overcome it and come out the other side as a better person to do the job.

      Yup.

    • Lindsey167 says

      I agree with honesty but I also believe there’s got to be something said for turning your weakness into a positive near the end of your explanation.

      • says

        Another way to look at it is the “hero’s journey.” Our hero — you — get put into this position and then have to overcome obstacles (your weaknesses) by learning, fighting through problems, learning from mentors or whatever to achieve your goal. That’s turning your weakness into a positive experience where you came out better on the other side.

    • says

      But how you honestly answer questions is a point of view. You want the answers to show your job skills or your ability to work with a team. Down to earth is nice, but the objective is to be honest — and get the job offer.

  9. says

    It is a constantly moving target, isn’t it? Have faith that most people doing the interviews are not that good at keeping up (because they interview so rarely) and your answers will be far better than most job candidates (because most job candidates don’t try and figure out answers to interview questions…).

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *