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.