Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Common Interview Questions: #1 Weaknesses

"What are your weaknesses?"
"List your three biggest failings."
"What do you regard as a failure or disappointment in your career to date?"
"On what will you spend your personal training budget this year?"
"If you could change something in your life, what would it be?"
"What developmental needs were addressed at your last appraisal?"
"If I asked your colleagues what your biggest weakness is, what would they tell me?"
All essentially the same question, all homing in on everything that is worst about you - it's no wonder people dread job interviews. There you are in your best interview suit, with your shiniest shoes on, doing your best to sound credible, professional and enthusiastic and all the interviewer wants to do is lift up stones and see what crawls out.

We've all heard the turn-a-weakness-into-a-strength suggestion. Most of the time, I hear this kind of twaddle:

"Oh, I suppose I’m a bit of a perfectionist."
"I’m a workaholic and that can irritate my workmates sometimes."
"I don’t suffer fools gladly."
Interviewers hear these answers about as often as the police hear, "Is this really a 30mph zone, Officer? I didn't realise …" Ill-prepared graduates are the worst offenders when it comes to talking this way. But make no mistake, in all its myriad forms, this is a real question and many interviewers use it as an 'eliminator' when faced with large numbers of similarly-qualified, similarly experienced candidates.

So why do they bother asking about personal failings and chinks in your armour? What are they trying to find out about you? In a nut-shell:
  • Do you have self-knowledge?
  • Are you sufficiently confident to admit to a weakness in this professional setting?
  • Are you smug or complacent about your failings?
  • What have you learnt from your past mistakes?
So you can see, "I'm a bit of a perfectionist," scores a fat zero against all four reasons for asking the question.

If you have an interview coming up shortly and you don’t have a strong, fact-based, answer to this question, you need to do a little soul-searching. Failing that, ask your partner/spouse. Spouses are always ready to point out your failings and need very little encouragement to do so. Talk to friends and family. Ask them to tell you three strong points and one weakness about yourself. Tell them to do you the favour of being brutally honest. Do the same with colleagues from past jobs, or better yet, an old boss of yours. Therapists charge a fortune to help you along this sort of voyage of self-discovery; the information is there for free, if you have the courage to ask for it.

Look at those things you prevaricate on. Items you consistently shy away from doing. Those parts of your job that you just don’t enjoy, feel inadequate performing, or know in your heart of hearts that others do better. What about something that you would love to get training in to make that sense of inadequacy go away? Build a list of these Achilles’ heels. Think about things that used to be a problem for you in the past, but that you have gained a measure of confidence in now. Look at how you gained that confidence or redressed the problem. These insights will form the nucleus of your answer.

The weakness question also assesses your open-mindedness, your willingness to accept constructive criticism about your professional performance and, by extension, where you lie on a scale of smug to driven. Many candidates have some degree of insight and are sufficiently confident (or cocky!) to admit a failing at interview, but will then smile at the interviewer and wait for the next question. ("Weaknesses? – Well, I suppose I do have a bit of a big mouth and people often do misunderstand me.") BIG mistake.

The unspoken heart of the weakness question is this: "What are you doing about it?" If you fail to address this to the interviewer’s satisfaction, it is extremely unlikely that you will be offered the job. So be prepared to open up a bit. No matter how catastrophic your performance has been in the past, if you can demonstrate that you learnt from a mistake, or took some training, and that you are now more effective because of it, the interviewer will be more inclined to mentally put a big tick next to your name.

Related Posts:
Follow-up thoughts and comments
Impostor Syndrome


Ask a Manager said...

This is a great post! I have been preaching this message for a while now, and it's amazing to me how difficult people find it to come up with a good answer to questions about weaknesses. This post really nailed it.

Rowan Manahan said...

I'm always stunned when I ask an 'obvious' interview question and the candidate does a rabbit-in-the-headlights. It tells me a LOT about the quality of that candidate's preparation.

It's not anywhere near enough to be ready to talk about your successes, hopes, dreams and aspirations - any skilled interviewer is going to want to talk about your failures, insecurities, fears and foul-ups.

Anonymous said...

This is so very important for people to know. I've heard the soft weaknesses so often, as well as the "I've fixed all mine" and "I don't really have any" it just makes me wonder why people think that answer will ever make a good impression. Another similar set of suggestions is at http://www.wikihow.com/Communicate-Your-Weaknesses

Anonymous said...

"I'm not very good at being interviewed. For example, I haven't prepared answers to stock questions that don't address points relevant to my qualification and job performance."

Of course, you can't tell this to the HR flunkie doing the initial screening. A hiring manager should be able to appreciate this answer as an acknowledgment that you're aware of the "game" and know what the "right" answer is but prefer not to play it.

Rowan Manahan said...

Anonymous 1 - thanks for the Wiki link, it's a good piece.

Anonymous 2 - I have to disagree. That answer is the equivalent of when George Bush said he couldn't come up with any mistakes he had made and that he wished the journalist had submitted his question in advance.

My follow-up to your answer if I were interviewing you would be, "You're not suggesting that you are some kind of Superior Being are you? Come on now, what wrinkles in your personal style am I going to discover when I've been working with you for 6 months?"

Anonymous said...

I have given a right answer to this one once. At that time I was not good at communication, good team player but I was not good at communicating, that's all. For that job I applied for, it was an important skill, like several others. I was honest and picked this relevent weakness for that job. It immediatly disqulified me. A few years letter I have much better communication skills now. But the Director who disqualified me of course will not interview me again. Therefore my suggestion, don't ever mention relevent weaknesses. You can improve them a lot in several months if you work hard on them. But many people can't beleive this and don't know if you can improve or not, don't kill your chances, work on improving you relevent weakenesses instead and get the job.

Rowan Manahan said...

Anonymous 3 - Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I've answered it with a follow-up post.

Anonymous said...

I am usually pissed off at these questions and think they are unnecessary , if you are going to interview a person for a certain position i think stock questions makes no sense , but unfortunately they ask you this all the time . Might be something like why do you think you are perfect fit for this job is a much better question ..

Anonymous said...

I have a BA in Communication. One thing to remember when this questions is asked, ALWAYS put a positive spin on your weakness! For example, if you have volunteered for many positions in the past and get overwhelmed, simply state that "I have a hard time saying now when asked for volunteer or help out, which sometimes gets overwhelming or stressful" This shows a negative (you take on too much) but also a positive (you like to help others).

Good Luck!