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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

how to answer "what are your weaknesses?"

Rowan Manahan at Fortify Your Oasis has started a new project, "The Definitive Guide to Clearing Job-Hunt Hurdles," in which lots of bloggers are contributing advice on various parts of the job-seeking process. Here's some advice from me on a topic that seems to stymie even savvy job-hunters: the weaknesses question.

Some variation of "what are your weaknesses?" is going to come up in every interview. How do you talk about weaknesses when you're trying to sell yourself?

First, here's what not to do: Don't try to offer up a strength taken too far -- perfectionism, you work too hard, you can't leave the job at the office, etc. This is widely recognized as disingenuous b.s. and you'll be seen as evading the question.

What should you do? Well, I'll warn you up front that my approach to this is unorthodox, but I believe it's the right one.

When I'm interviewing you, I'm not your adversary, so don't treat me like one by trying to snow me. If you're a good fit for the job, I want to find that out and hire you ... and if you're not a good fit, I want to find that out so that I don't put you in a job that you'll struggle with and even risk getting fired from. Assuming you want to land a position where you'll thrive, this should be your goal too -- and honesty is more likely to get us there.

So that means you should come clean about weaknesses. I'm not going to be shocked to discover you have some; we all do. The question is just how they'll fit with this particular position, something we should both be interested in.

Here's part one of formulating your answer: Think seriously about your weak points. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your work skills or persona, what would it be?

And here's part two: What are you doing about it?

Your answer in the interview should consist of both parts. It might sound something like this: "When I first started in the work world, I found that I wasn't as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of everything I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks and all my priorities are correct. I'll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one."

I like this example because it takes a weakness -- disorganization -- that normally would raise a huge red flag for me, and instead shows how the person is neutralizing it as a problem.

[Now, occasionally your interviewer might follow up with (as I sometimes do), "That's a great description of how you overcame a weakness. Tell me about one you're still struggling with." If this happens, you should still use the two-part formula -- follow up the weakness with what you're doing to work on it. It's okay that you're not perfect yet; no one is. The question is just how it will impact the job.]

I know this goes counter to a lot of the advice out there about not showing any real weaknesses. But I think that plays to the wrong goal. Your goal shouldn't be to get a job, any job. It should be to get the right job for you.

19 comments:

Wally Bock said...

This is a great post with good advice. There's some language that I suggest my coaching clients use, that may be helpful here. We say that the strategy for weaknesses is: to make them irrelevant.

Chris said...

I also found this to be a good post. Unlike Wally, however, I'm not sure I feel that making weaknesses irrelevant is a good tactic. They aren't irrelevant and the risk of making them appear so is that you'll end up in a position where you repeatedly have to encounter them.

Instead, I think it's better for people to become *very aware* of what their strengths and weaknesses are. Most people probably have a good idea, but sometimes it's hard to communicate. But you must! You want to be placed into a position where you are fully engaged with your strengths and only the required effort is applied to weaknesses. Research shows that improving your weaknesses is not as efficient or effective as improving strengths (Gallup).

Identify your weaknesses and find out how much of the position will require you to use them. Obviously do the same for your strengths. Hopefully you both employer and candidate will find that "perfect fit" as a result.

Lisa said...

It really does come down to fit in the job hunt. I am often the interviewer not paying as much to what the candidate's answer was to a question but more so how they went about answering it. I am looking for authenticity, awareness, willingness to learn, taking actions to grow. . . this I can work with. A fully capable, I can do no wrong person would not fit well with me or on my team.

Karen said...

I could not agree more with your post here! This is exactly the kind of thing I want to hear candidates say when I ask them about a weakness. We've seen candidates try every other approach under the sun - including the "I don't have any weaknesses" approach and NOTHING is more effective than this two stage approach!

Chuck said...

Great post, and I just discovered your site through a pointed comment about video resumes on employee evolution.

Consider me a new subscriber to your RSS.

Anonymous said...

I find that this question itself is the absolute *weakest* thing a manager can actually ask. There is no real point to it at all. You say there is one, but frankly, it's merely part of the dance. Even the two part answer has no real meaning. Think about it. Even though they aren't performing the "I'm perfect" answer, the person still has to find some kind of two part answer just in case some manager is hackneyed and unoriginal enough to ask this question, and it's just a hoop to jump through.

The best employers I've ever worked for never felt the need to ask this question. They could actually tell by my interest in the position and experience and explaining past challenges and projects and my portfolio and references that I was qualified. That was enough expansive data. They didn't need to whip out this useless, weak question.

Ask a Manager said...

Thanks for weighing in, Anonymous. Interviewers ask this question because the answer says a lot about the candidate's ability to display insight into him/herself and because it often reveals really useful information. If it didn't, I for one would stop asking it. People can be "qualified" but still have traits that would lead to problems on the job, and it's better for both of us to find that out before we both make a mistake.

almostgotit.com said...

Great post, and I appreciate all the professional advice-from-the-hiring-POV that I can get. Especially as I am thinking of going into the interviewee business professionally (do you know anyone who's hiring?)

Here's my biggest weakness: I'm too human to be absolutely honest and self-revealing, when of course the interviewer isn't being absolutely honest or self-revealing either. We are looking for a good mutual fit, but until I'm hired, we are each chiefly operating out of self-interest. Of course we are.

Assuming the interviewer is also human, I wonder if the best approach on both sides, if we really are trying to find the best fit TOGETHER, is to be honest (yes) but also to focus (maybe) on more positive questions? E.G., management guru Peter Drucker (and Chris, above) both point out that we do best to focus on a candidate's strengths, and how best to apply and use them. I've no doubt that a keen interviewer will still be able to smoke out any untoward pomposity, etc... and both may well find the whole conversation quite congenial (vs. adversarial)

apu said...

great advice - the only issue being that sometimes when the person is desperate to have "any" job, it seems like a risky strategy. However, yes, experienced interviewers can easily smell the 'positive-disguised-as-negative' bit after a while.

Working Girl said...

It's funny because I was just mulling over this very topic (couldn't sleep last night).

Here's my idea: A good job is one that capitalizes on your strengths. A great job is one that capitalizes on your strengths AND your weaknesses.

Example: Years ago I got a job as a scientific editor. I know nothing about science. But it was my very lack of knowledge that made me a good editor---I was editing documents to make them understandable by non-scientists. So it behooved me to not drink the scientific Kool-Aid and retain my ignorant outsider status. (Hey, I split that infinitive on purpose!)

Chris mentioned that "science" is showing that it's better to concentrate on building strengths than to fix weaknesses. But isn't there a way to leverage our weaknesses, to make them work for us?

This is an idea I'd love to see you explore more deeply.

Anonymous said...

I arrived at this thread in researching something totally alien to this conversation. Nonetheless, I find it interesting but, I believe the question to be both absurd and, quite likely, practiced by those with little imagination in hiring talent.

Having been self-employed for virtually my entire adult life and having achieved uncommon success, I've had the opportunity to interview and hire others (to work for me) but have never been subjected to being interviewed by a prospective employer.

In retrospect, I would have had a difficult time answering the question as, with respect to my job, I feel I've had no weaknesses and, for the most part, I can say that was true of my employees as well.

Okay; why is this question what is your greatest weakness absurd.

What answer(s) might be expected?

''I'm a perfectionist who cares too much about the customer and I take my work home with me and constantly think about how (blank) can be improved to benefit the company as well as the customer experience!'' (I really need to learn to take a break from work.)

Yeah! But, I really want to know are you an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a thief or one of questionable honesty/ethics who will rarely show up on time and...

Anonymous said...

In my 15+ years of experiences, only HR types of people ask this sort of question. I have never had a business manager ask me this. They usually can deduce from asking questions about past experiences.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks. I've got an interview in 19 minutes and this will be handy!!! gulp!

Anonymous said...

I hate this question, because all the interviewee has to do is basically what you did; turn it into a strength(a clever lie). Sounds like being organized is one of your strengths in your example. You're not finding out a true weakness. Only an imbecile would tell you that.

Its an unfair question, a dumb question, deceptive, and I see it only as one to throw an interviewee off(or show how naive you are).

The question should be "Identify a weakness you had in the past, and tell me how you neutralized it."
That is not a trick question, and it doesn't comes off like you're an idiot that expects someone to cleverly lie to your face.

Anonymous said...

This it truly an idiotic question gauged by the number of clever respones other bloggers have thought up.

No one in there right mind would tell a prospective employer their real weaknesses if they ever hope to get a job. If you've corrected it, then it's not a weakness anymore so why mention it as a weakness in an interview?

As an employer I would never ask this question. There are much better ways to determine a candidates ability and character.

Anonymous said...

I think the question itself is too fuzzy because whether something is a weakness or strength is relative and highly contextual. So when one asks for a catalogue of my weaknesses I would like to know in what context. Is it in context of my current job, the one I am applying for or personal? If personal then it becomes even more complex – for different worldviews, religions and beliefs would define strengths and weaknesses differently. So asking a person to list their weaknesses is totally pointless. All you need (as a prospective employer) is a list of one’s attributes and/or abilities. You can then decide what you think will/will not work for the job you are offering in order to identify a suitable candidate.

Mas said...

Well I think the employers are trying to test your ability to reply a silly question with a clever answer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for great post, encouraging, positive and very useful.

Anonymous said...

What if my weakness is reading blog posts when I should be working? What am I doing to improve? Reading blog posts about improving my weaknesses and then asking the author and comment writers how I might turn this weakness into a strength.

ooo, Lilo is in trouble again...