"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."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.
"I’m a workaholic and that can irritate my workmates sometimes."
"I don’t suffer fools gladly."
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?
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.
Follow-up thoughts and comments