Some interview questions are easy to answer, such as an inquiry about your greatest strengths or assets. When the tables turn, however, and an employer wants to know about your weaknesses, how do you respond? Many people are easily tripped up by this standard interview question, but it really isn’t that difficult to answer if you understand what they are actually asking.
An interviewer doesn’t typically put a lot of emphasis on the skills or attributes that you list off as your “areas of improvement” unless they are directly related to the position for which you are applying. No one wants you to highlight all of your faults so that they can pick them apart! This isn’t even supposed to be a “trick” question, according to hiring managers and HR professionals. What, then, is the point of this question in the first place?
Employers need to know how you will handle adversity in the workplace.
It’s no big secret. While this question can be used to help the interviewer determine whether you are actually qualified for the position, the bigger picture for most hiring managers is to find out how you deal with things that you don’t excel at, how well you rebound from challenges and failures, and whether you are self-aware of your own needs for professional improvement.
Constructing answers to the dreaded weakness question
First, Proceed with Caution
This question is asked in almost every job interview. Think carefully about the job posting and what skills are required. Make sure that you avoid discussing any areas of weakness directly related to your ability to do the job. While being always truthful, the key is to discuss your shortcomings and weaknesses in a manner that helps, rather than hurts, your chances of landing the job.
Consider some of the issues that may have challenged you in a past job. It is a worthwhile exercise to make a list of your known weaknesses. You may also want to consider retrieving past performance evaluations and notes from supervisors that highlight areas of improvement.
Be sure to thoroughly review the job posting before the interview so you do not discuss a skill or area of experience as a deficiency that is critically important to the job (while also considering the strengths that you possess).
If you are highly organized and detail-oriented, for example, you may realize that you are also a bit of a perfectionist. Of course, what you say is only half of the equation. How you answer this question often matters far more than the actual answer you provide. Here are a few examples:
1. “I’m a perfectionist.”
3. “I hold myself to extremely high standards and there are instances where I place an excessive amount of
pressure on myself and my teammates when beginning a new project. Having realized that, I’ve learned to
make a conscious effort to be aware of when I start to become hyper-focused or over-invested in a task so
that I can redirect my energy to the next thing that actually needs my attention.”
Which one of these statements sounds best to you? For an interviewer, the last example is a much better response than the first two. Not only does it answer the question, but it provides more detail and includes insight about how the individual is working to improve on their weaknesses.
If your answer only consists of the skill or area where you lack experience or ability, you’re doing a couple of things to the interviewer (and they are going to notice):
- First, you are making them work harder because they now have to ask the follow-up question of “How are you working to improve this?”. Assume that this is implied in the original question and include it in your answer.
- Secondly, you may cause them to question your interest in self-improvement. If your entire response is “I sometimes procrastinate”, you are allowing the interviewer to assume that you are aware of your flaws, but have no intention of improving them.
The bottom line here is that you don’t want to keep anyone guessing. No matter how the actual question is asked, what interviewers want here is a detailed answer that shows them:
- How you handle adversity or challenges
- That you’re aware of your imperfections
- That you are striving for continuous self-improvement
- That you can be honest and sincere
How Not to Answer
While there are a lot of great ways to successfully answer this question, there are some definite answers that you’ll want to avoid. Assume that hiring managers and interviewers have heard it all, so don’t bother with recycled answers and manufactured blurbs you “borrowed” from the internet. Start with sincerity, from the moment that your job interview begins, and you will be on the right track with this and every other question you are asked.
Not only is this inaccurate, but it will make you appear to be arrogant, lack self-awareness, and/or like you aren’t interested in personal and professional improvement. None of these things are desirable to a potential employer.
In an attempt to put a positive spin on this topic, some candidates will start their answer by re-addressing one of their strengths and how it relates to a weakness, or how it can be a weakness itself at times. There are a number of reasons why this is a bad way to respond. Primarily, it can appear that you struggle to identify or accept your imperfections or areas where you could improve. Secondly, because it is a commonly recommended and used tactic, which interviewers have heard plenty of times before.
There are two main areas of skills and abilities in the professional world: personality-related (soft) skills and job-related (hard) skills. Try to avoid pointing out your own character flaws or using examples that involve your work ethic and interpersonal skills. These areas are harder to quantifiably improve upon, and many can seem like generic answers to an interviewer who has heard it all. If you do want to utilize a personality trait, make sure you answer like the example provided above to show that you are aware of, and working on, your shortcomings.
Some Tips for Success
Be honest and sincere. Interviewers see dozens, if not hundreds, of candidates and they know how to spot a recycled answer or insincerity from a mile away. For many hiring managers, the lack of honesty in a response could be more telling than the response itself. Employers aren’t trying to trick you. They’re just trying to obtain true answers about your skills. With this particular question, they want to know that you’re aware of your shortcomings and are willing to improve upon them. That’s all.
Tip #1: Don’t choose teamwork or communication skills
While it’s completely valid to have a skill that could use improvement within either of these two areas, avoid using these as examples. How you work with others or how well you take direction, for example, should not be presented in a negative light at any point during your interview. Teamwork and communication skills are key essentials for nearly every job. While you might not be perfect as an employee, most employers will expect you to at least have the basics down.
Tip #2: Be direct, but feel free to provide further explanation
Don’t try to hide the weakness among a bunch of unnecessary words and distractions. Again, employers have seen it all and they’ll know what you are up to. Be direct and genuine. You can, however, offer further detail after you answer by providing an example of your answer and following that with how you are working on improving this weakness or area where you lack skill.
Bad Example: As I mentioned earlier, I am highly motivated and thrive in a fast-paced environment. However, that sometimes can translate to me moving too fast or overlooking small details on a rare occasion. It doesn’t happen very often, but there are times when my “big-picture” mentality gets in the way of thoroughness.
Good Example: There are times when I get ahead of myself. I have a tendency to see the bigger picture first, but I also take pride in being thorough and have been working to slow myself down by making task lists and project outlines to ensure that I work through every step and cover all the details, from start to finish.
Based on what you know so far, can you tell why it is a bad example? Here are the important points:
- The first example is unnecessarily wordy and indirect. Also, it is using a strength to showcase a weakness, which we already discussed was not the most effective way to answer. A lot of talking doesn’t translate to a good answer without a solid message.
- The second example follows the ideal format for answering this question: a direct answer regarding a weakness you have, followed with detailed steps that you are taking to improve that weakness.
To wrap up, remember the following four tips and you’ll ace this question at every interview:
- Be direct, honest, and sincere.
- Plan ahead and have an answer prepared.
- Choose something not directly related to the position.
- Tell them how you are working to improve said weakness(es).
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