by Leslie Rothman
The dreaded “What’s your Greatest Weakness?” question; your hands get clammy and your stomach flip flops. Join the crowd. Questions that probe for your weaknesses routinely get asked, and when answered poorly can sabotage your candidacy. With a little practice, you can stand out from most candidates with a thoughtful answer to the “weakness” question.
Why the “Weakness” Question is Asked
To learn how to handle this question, and any other question that forces you to speak to a negative attribute or situation, it is useful to understand why they get asked. In my experience, this question is asked to reveal the following attributes – classified as “emotional intelligence”:
- Self-awareness–does this person understand what their own liabilities are -what they are not good at?
- Confidence–does this person have the confidence to acknowledge they’re not perfect and share some level of vulnerability?
- Self-improvement focused–does this person work at improving him/herself, recognizing that weaknesses do not disappear and will surface again without attention?
Additionally, the interviewer is trying to determine whether this job and work environment is a good match with this candidate –are the things this person is really not good at going to prevent them from being a strong performer in the job?
Approaches to Avoid
Here are some ways candidates frequently misstep on this question.
- Stonewalling – not offering up any weaknesses or difficulties. No one’s perfect, so this type of response can make an interviewer question your honesty, self awareness and confidence.
- Giving a “fluff” weakness – one that is so superficial that it’s as good as not owning up to any weakness (i.e., I’m not a good speller). With this response, you may get asked for another.
- A “tell all” spilling your guts response. Getting flustered and naming several weaknesses.
- Naming a “killer” weakness -a weakness that will directly impact your ability to be effective in the job.
I’ve seen these all happen; sometimes an individual will make all of these mistakes, in succession.
Develop an Effective Answer
The formula to answer the “Weakness” question successfully has three steps.
Step One: Do your homework
Think about the job you’re interviewing for and identify the core responsibilities. List the skills, abilities and traits these responsibilities require. Sometimes you are given that information in a job description, posting or advertisement. Often these attributes aren’t specifically named, but are critical to uncover.
Step Two: Identify your weaknesses
Think about your weakness (these can be personality traits, lack of a skill, interest or expertise) and identify a few that are “real” weaknesses, but not ones that indicate you’d struggle with a core job responsibility. For most of us, any strength carried to the extreme can turn into a liability. So you can speak to a strength that has an “up side” and a “down side”.
Step Three: Plan for improvement
For each weakness, think about how you’ve worked on improving that weakness, or have learned to compensate for it. If you haven’t ever thought to work on improving your weaknesses, now is the time to come up with plans to do that. Let’s work an example and some possible responses:
- If you’re interested in coding/ programming, administrative or accounting work, requirements for all these jobs can be detail orientation and the ability to methodically follow steps. Based on this, you’re not going to name a weakness like“ I am not always as careful as I could be” or “I get bored following sequential steps.” These could be “killer” weaknesses in these jobs, and would indicate a job mismatch.
- If you’re truly a detailed, methodical person, these abilities taken to the extreme can be turned into a non-threatening weakness. “I’ve always been good at following established procedures, being methodical and I have never considered myself a creative person”, or “spontaneously brainstorming ideas that push the envelope is hard for me.” OR, name a skill-based weakness that isn’t linked to “core responsibilities” –“I don’t consider myself to be a strong writer.”
- Now, the self-improvement part. “I’ve been reading a book on creative thinking and trying to incorporate some new ways to approach my work.” (Be ready to talk about what these new approaches are!) Or “I’ve enrolled in a college level English grammar course this spring.” Obviously, you only want to mention what you’ve actually been doing or really plan to do; this isn’t a time to make things up.
- Compensating for the weakness is another way to respond. “I know I’m not particularly creative, so I look to team up with individuals who are when I work on a project. The work benefits, and I learn from them.” (Again, be ready to share a specific example!) OR, “After I write something, I carefully use my grammar check. I also have developed a template which was reviewed by a peer who writes really well, and I use this for my routine correspondence.”
This last strategy works for any type of question that forces you to speak to a negative situation. Sometimes you can unintentionally take a positive response to a negative place, of your own doing. Catch yourself sounding negative and turn it around to a positive by talking about what you’ve learned from a difficult experience. This shows maturity, self-awareness and a desire to grow.
Listed below are some variations of the weakness or negative response questions you may get asked:
- What is your greatest weakness?
- What two personality traits do you like least about yourself?
- What developmental or critical feedback have you received from past supervisors?
- What would your peers say you could improve on?
You’ve named your strengths, now name your weaknesses.
- Tell me about a situation where you feel like you blew it.
- Tell me about a professional mistake you’ve made.
- Describe a boss that has been challenging for you to work with and why.
By preparing ahead and applying these basic steps, you can effectively handle these tough questions, turning your responses into winners!
“What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” is reprinted with permission by Jobsinme.com and is a copyrighted publication of Career & Work Directions, LLC and cannot be copied without express written permission of Career & Work Directions, LLC.