Handling the “What Are Your Weaknesses” Question in a Job Interview

Previously, we discussed how as a job seeker, you can describe your strengths in a job interview without coming across like you’re bragging. But once you’ve successfully sold your strengths, you know what’s coming next – don’t you?

“What would you say are your greatest weaknesses?”

“If we talked with your boss and co-workers, what blind spots or soft spots would they be likely to mention?”

“Are there any problem areas or developmental needs that we should be aware of?”

“What difficulties or frustrations have you discovered in you recent employment?”

Chances are you’ve spent some time rehearsing the perfect reply to this most dangerous of all interview questions. You’ve probably read articles on “the weaknesses question,” most of which tell you to take one of your , and describe it as a weakness:

  1. “When the stakes are high, I can be a very firm leader who insists on excellence in all things.”

A brief silence often follows such an answer, as the interviewer decides whether to laugh in your face or ask you if you think that they’re completely stupid. No matter how polished your delivery, the strength-as-weakness ploy usually comes across as an obvious non-answer.isa weakness – saying this patronizes the interviewer and destroys your rapport with them. Please, .

In the past, many HR reps would let this kind of answer pass, figuring it was a conventional and harmless part of the interviewing game. But with budgets tight, companies can’t afford to make poor hiring choices. Today you’re more likely to get badgered with a foaming, self-righteous wrath designed to show that .

If you want to avoid getting called out by a furious interviewer (and losing chance of landing the job), you need to have the courage and integrity to ‘fess up and try to answer the weakness question honestly. And if you’ve already incurred HR’s wrath, you be able to save yourself by saying something likeMaybe this will help create a more relaxed vibe, where you can talk candidly and hopefully secure the job.

Know the Enemy

Both ethically and practically, the weaknesses question presents you with clear and present dangers. For example, you never know when a minor liability – your terrible spelling, for example – will seem like a big deal to an employer.But unless you’re starving and desperate, it’s a bad idea to lie your way into a job. Besides, if you don’t want to wind up in over your head, shouldn’t you warn a potential employer about areas where you’re uncomfortable? Ah, but how can you do that without killing your chances of finding employment?

First let’s consider the meaning of the word “weakness.” In a job interview, it can be defined this way:

  1. A fundamental and continuing inability to perform some essential part of a job.

Note that given this definition, admitting evenweakness can disqualify you. Also recognize that you shouldn’t confuse weaknesses with developmental needs. Few of us haveskill listed in a typical job description. But if a job requires knowledge of Six Sigma or basic Spanish and you don’t have it, that can be a challenge, but not necessarily a job-killing weakness. You can learn those skills, meaning that .

You should also avoid repeating the word “weakness” back to the interviewer in your answer. Why wave the red flag in front of the bull? In fact, keep your answers free of any strongly negative words or phrases, such asor . You don’t want to be positive, but you should avoid code words that hint at performance, motivational or attitude problems. Instead, use neutral words – instead of weaknesses, they’reor .

What They Really Want to Know

Like many interview questions,doesn’t really mean what it seems. Interviewers don’t care about your personal failures, and aren’t looking to reveal some dark, secret axe-murdering tendencies. They . Every HR rep worries about making a lousy hire and not helping the company get its money’s worth. What the weaknesses question really asks is simple:

Since that’s all they’re really asking, that’s what you need to address:

Note that this approach doesn’t saybut insteadSure, this may not really answer the question, but it does address theproblem. Basically, you’re saying

Backing and Filling

Of course, this won’t be your entire answer. You need to show that you don’t just think you’re perfect. How can you do this? To avoid sayingorbut still not come off as arrogant, try framing your response in terms of a preference for one of two polar opposites, with the pole being your weak area.

For example, don’t say,Instead try this:

“Given a choice between strategic thinking and a job that focuses primarily on implementation and repetitive quantitative activity, I prefer the former. I’m far more comfortable in planning and strategic positions.”

The formula is basic: . This way, you can implywithout ever expressing a negative. This technique is easy to master with a little practice.

Be a Human Doing

Let’s say, however, that during the interview or reference check some unattractive issue or trait is bound to arise that you’ll have to acknowledge and somehow defuse. Or the interviewer may ask,

When asked to describe their weaknesses, most people naturally begin by sayingas inThis is a pretty comprehensive way of damning yourself.means , in situations, with people. A better approach is to cite behavior that occurs in a certain . This allows you to claim that you’re aware of the potential “issue” in that setting, but that you’re also working to minimize it. Like this:

“I’m aware my tendency to make fast decisions sometimes makes some of my staff feel like I’m impatient. In situations where it’s important that they feel valued, I know I have to be careful to slow down, and make sure to be a more active listener.”

This focuses on what you , rather than what you . But if you use this approach, don’t end it by saying something likeThat makes it sound like life therapy, like if you ever grow up somehow you won’t be impatient anymore. Keep in mind that the essential elements of this answer are the phrasesandAs a rule, if you focus on your behaviors instead of your personality traits, you’ll do better.

Validating the Aggressor

Let’s suppose you have an “issue” that’s so obvious that neither you nor the employer feels comfortable bringing it up. Maybe it’s your night blindness, the six years you spent in Attica, your evident shyness or your wheelchair. To defuse a delicate situation like this, you want to practice a technique called “validating the aggressor.”

With this approach, you use almost any rationale to raise the issue , and ascribe any negative feelings about it to some unnamed third party. You then explain that it’s perfectly understandable for someone to have these apprehensions, but spell out . Just don’t turn your interviewer into the aggressor by saying something like,All this will do is produce an immediate denial:.

Framing the Weakness Issue

When responding to the weakness question, another effective technique is to frame your answer before leaping to your own defense. In other words, start by explaining you’re approaching the answer the way you are:

“I’m never quite sure how to respond to the weaknesses question. I don’t want to avoid it, because I think it’s a fair question, and I think any candidate should be self-aware enough not to think they’re perfect. Having said all that, let me say I don’t think there are any fundamental issues or problems we have to be concerned about. That’s why I’m so excited about this job.”

When handled properly, rather than being a problem, the weaknesses question can be a chance to display your self-awareness, understanding of the employer’s concerns and refreshing candor. If you seem honest and unafraid, interviewers are more likely to conclude that what they’re seeing is what they’ll get. Their defenses will go down, and you chances of getting the job will go up.

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