Job candidates, does the, “What is your greatest weakness?” interview question give you pause? Are you strapped with fear, afraid you’ll answer this question incorrectly? Do you try to avoid answering it with a cute answer like, “Chocolate”? Is there a right answer?
I’ve often told my clients that they shouldn’t worry about this question. That the answer is in their pocket; they should know what to say before getting to the interview. No big deal. I tell them interviewers want self-awareness, but to not reveal a weakness that will kill their chances.
Further, interviewers want to know how they’re correcting their weakness. This is important. To simply state a weakness and not say they’re doing something about it, is to shoot themselves in the foot.
I asked four career development pundits their take on this daunting question, and how they feel it should be answered. These are people who are recruiters or have been recruiters in the past, so they’re the real deal.
The “what’s your greatest weakness?” question, is an important one. I ask this question often, but not to hear cookie cutter answers, or to learn how someone turns a weakness into a strength, because those two response types tell me very little about a person.
I ask this question to see if this person has actively listened to me after I explained details about a specific position and our company, and mostly to see if they are self-aware.
Here’s an example. If I tell a candidate that our plant is largely multi-lingual and they were actively listening, they could use the fact that they may not be multi-lingual as a “weakness.”
An answer to my question could look like this:
“I heard you when you said the majority of the plant is multi-lingual. A weakness in that case is that I am not multi-lingual.
“However, to address your concerns in that regard, I have worked in multi-lingual environments and have been able to relate effectively to my coworkers even without this component.”
When we ask this question, we are hoping candidates will address a concern that we might have regarding job fit. When a candidate does this, the simple act of having listened and showcasing awareness of relevant skills or lack thereof, will help us feel better about that person’s fit.
Who wouldn’t want to work with an active listener who is self-aware? It’s a rarity – maybe one of every twenty-five people I talk to possesses these qualities.
The worst way a candidate can answer this question, in my opinion, is to tell me they do not possess any weaknesses. Unfortunately, this answer is very common. When asked this question, just remember– having a weakness is normal. Being a great listener who knows oneself and can communicate that effectively – that’s the true test.
I don’t like this question at all! Instead of asking what someone’s greatest weakness is, I like to focus on what areas of their professional life they’re working to improve currently. I want learn how someone is evolving as a professional and the steps they’re taking to grow.
For example, if I want to know what measures candidates are taking to improve their writing skills, I’ll ask them how they’re going about doing this?
For me the answer would be participating as a writer in articles such as this; creating original written content on LinkedIn or for other social media sites; and, of course, being extra attentive in my day to day e-mail communications with colleagues.
When I ask this question, what I’m hoping to hear is what the individual is specifically doing to improve. If you can’t tell me what you’re doing to improve, then in my mind you’re not doing anything at all!
In my experience the best candidates I’ve worked with are those that are naturally curious and continuously looking for learning opportunities to improve their skills.
So if you’re asked this question or something similar, be mindful of areas you’re making improvements (not necessarily weaknesses) and what you’re doing to make progress!
First: It’s important to know why a hiring manager asks this question in the first place. They are looking for red flags, opportunities where you might need some additional help or coaching, or to test your compatibility with the team.
Talent acquisition has evolved over the last decade. Recruiters are not only responsible for candidate attraction but also assessment.
In fact, I had a boss once who told me (as a recruiter) that if I couldn’t identify at least 3 candidate red flags during an interview, that I wasn’t doing my job.
Don’t give the overused response, “I am a perfectionist and can be too detail oriented and have a hard time doing work less than 100%.” If I was the hiring manager interviewing you for a job and you gave me that response, I would ask you for another weakness.
Also, don’t share anything as a weakness that relates to how you work with others or how you get along with management.
DO: I suggest giving a “real” weakness in a straightforward way. Your weakness should also be non-essential to the job.
For example, if you are interviewing for a position as a major gifts fundraiser, don’t tell the hiring manager that you get intimidated talking to new people. That’s a big part of the job!
Instead, focus on a tool or skill you haven’t used. Using the example of the major gift officer, if you noticed in the job description that they use Boomerang donor management software but you’ve only used Raiser’s Edge then your response to the question could be:
“I noticed you’re company is using Boomerang for donor management. In this role I may have a small learning curve, as I’ve only used Raiser’s Edge. When working for XX I got proficient with Raiser’s Edge and was frequently running reports and search queries. I am optimistic with a little training I should be doing the same with Boomerang.”
Among tough interview questions, “What is your greatest weakness?” will never go down without a fight. This question leaves even the best interviewees grasping for straws to find the perfect response.
Tip number one, this is not a trick question. It was never designed to zone in on your shortcomings — but your interviewer’s strategy for uncovering how you acknowledge your areas for improvements and develop corrective actions.
Avoid responding with “I have no weaknesses.” The fear and shame of being judged for saying something wrong are very common, but you don’t have to walk away with your tail between your legs. Instead of claiming perfection, focus on something you’ve struggled with in the past but turned it around for added value.
For example, “Early in my career, I had trouble reaching a stopping point with a task. I would get so committed to completing an assignment that I worked for more hours than necessary to be productive.
“I recognized this behavior and began breaking tasks into digestible parts and allotting a certain amount of time to work on each piece. I still received the satisfaction in knowing I was checking items off my list. Even if I left the remaining components for the next day, my work output/quality was far better than before.”
Discussing weaknesses becomes easier with practice. Start by making a list of things you want to improve and then develop a solution to fix that problem. If your idea saves money, time, and resources, it will be the icing on the cake.
Given the reasons why interviewers ask this question and the kinds of answers they want to hear, our four experts agree on two major points: they want to hear self-awareness and they want to know how candidates are working on correcting their weakness.
If you are preparing for an interview, keep this in mind. Interviewers aren’t out to hurt your chances of getting the position. On the contrary, they want to see you succeed. As Ashley Watkins writes, “Tip number one, this is not a trick question. It was never designed to zone in on your shortcomings.” I know you can trust her on this.
Photo: Flickr, eva sharma