By Douglas B. Richardson
Previously, we discussed how as a job seeker, you can describe your strengths in a job interview without coming across like you're bragging. But once you've successfully sold your strengths, you know what's coming next – don't you?
"What would you say are your greatest weaknesses?"
"If we talked with your boss and co-workers, what blind spots or soft spots would they be likely to mention?"
"Are there any problem areas or developmental needs that we should be aware of?"
"What difficulties or frustrations have you discovered in you recent employment?"
Chances are you've spent some time rehearsing the perfect reply to this most dangerous of all interview questions. You've probably read articles on "the weaknesses question," most of which tell you to take one of your strengths, and describe it as a weakness:
A brief silence often follows such an answer, as the interviewer decides whether to laugh in your face or ask you if you think that they're completely stupid. No matter how polished your delivery, the strength-as-weakness ploy usually comes across as an obvious non-answer. "I work too hard" is not a weakness – saying this patronizes the interviewer and destroys your rapport with them. Please, don't do it.
In the past, many HR reps would let this kind of answer pass, figuring it was a conventional and harmless part of the interviewing game. But with budgets tight, companies can't afford to make poor hiring choices. Today you're more likely to get badgered with a foaming, self-righteous wrath designed to show that you cannot treat job interviewers like morons.
If you want to avoid getting called out by a furious interviewer (and losing any chance of landing the job), you need to have the courage and integrity to 'fess up and try to answer the weakness question honestly. And if you've already incurred HR's wrath, you might be able to save yourself by saying something like "You're right. I deserved that. But I never know how to answer that question. It forces me to hurt my chances, and I really want this job." Maybe this will help create a more relaxed vibe, where you can talk candidly and hopefully secure the job.
Know the Enemy
Both ethically and practically, the weaknesses question presents you with clear and present dangers. For example, you never know when a minor liability – your terrible spelling, for example – will seem like a big deal to an employer.But unless you're starving and desperate, it's a bad idea to lie your way into a job. Besides, if you don't want to wind up in over your head, shouldn't you warn a potential employer about areas where you're uncomfortable? Ah, but how can you do that without killing your chances of finding employment?
First let's consider the meaning of the word "weakness." In a job interview, it can be defined this way:
Note that given this definition, admitting even one weakness can disqualify you. Also recognize that you shouldn't confuse weaknesses with developmental needs. Few of us have every skill listed in a typical job description. But if a job requires knowledge of Six Sigma or basic Spanish and you don't have it, that can be a challenge, but not necessarily a job-killing weakness. You can learn those skills, meaning that your deficiency is only temporary.
You should also avoid repeating the word "weakness" back to the interviewer in your answer. Why wave the red flag in front of the bull? In fact, keep your answers free of any strongly negative words or phrases, such as problem, fired, failed, I couldn't, I didn't want to or overwhelmed. You don't want to be too positive, but you should avoid code words that hint at performance, motivational or attitude problems. Instead, use neutral words – instead of weaknesses, they're issues or concerns.
What They Really Want to Know
Like many interview questions, "What are your weaknesses?" doesn't really mean what it seems. Interviewers don't care about your personal failures, and aren't looking to reveal some dark, secret axe-murdering tendencies. They just want to reduce their risk. Every HR rep worries about making a lousy hire and not helping the company get its money's worth. What the weaknesses question really asks is simple: Should I worry?
Since that's all they're really asking, that's what you need to address:
"I'm sure that I'm not perfect, but as I understand the needs for this job, they appear to be a close match for my skills and experience. I don't see any reason I couldn't get up to speed quickly and perform well in the long run."
Note that this approach doesn't say "I have no weaknesses," but instead "I have no weaknesses that are relevant." Sure, this may not really answer the question, but it does address the Should I worry? problem. Basically, you're saying "You have my firm reassurance that you have nothing major to worry about if you give me this job."
Backing and Filling
Of course, this won't be your entire answer. You need to show that you don't just think you're perfect. How can you do this? To avoid saying "I can't" or "I hate" but still not come off as arrogant, try framing your response in terms of a preference for one of two polar opposites, with the other pole being your weak area.
For example, don't say, "I'm no good with numbers and details." Instead try this:
"Given a choice between strategic thinking and a job that focuses primarily on implementation and repetitive quantitative activity, I prefer the former. I'm far more comfortable in planning and strategic positions."
The formula is basic: given the choice between A and B, I'd prefer A. This way, you can imply "Don't make me do B" without ever expressing a negative. This technique is easy to master with a little practice.
Be a Human Doing
Let's say, however, that during the interview or reference check some unattractive issue or trait is bound to arise that you'll have to acknowledge and somehow defuse. Or the interviewer may ask, "If I talked with your colleagues or the people who know you the best, how would they characterize your weaknesses?"
When asked to describe their weaknesses, most people naturally begin by saying "I am," as in "I guess they'd say I am impatient." This is a pretty comprehensive way of damning yourself. "I'm impatient" means I'm impatient 24/7, in all situations, with all people. A better approach is to cite behavior that occurs in a certain context. This allows you to claim that you're aware of the potential "issue" in that setting, but that you're also working to minimize it. Like this:
"I'm aware my tendency to make fast decisions sometimes makes some of my staff feel like I'm impatient. In situations where it's important that they feel valued, I know I have to be careful to slow down, and make sure to be a more active listener."
This focuses on what you do, rather than what you are. But if you use this approach, don't end it by saying something like "and I'm working on that." That makes it sound like life therapy, like if you ever grow up somehow you won't be impatient anymore. Keep in mind that the essential elements of this answer are the phrases "I am aware" and "I have to be careful." As a rule, if you focus on your behaviors instead of your personality traits, you'll do better.
Validating the Aggressor
Let's suppose you have an "issue" that's so obvious that neither you nor the employer feels comfortable bringing it up. Maybe it's your night blindness, the six years you spent in Attica, your evident shyness or your wheelchair. To defuse a delicate situation like this, you want to practice a technique called "validating the aggressor."
With this approach, you use almost any rationale to raise the issue yourself, and ascribe any negative feelings about it to some unnamed third party. You then explain that it's perfectly understandable for someone to have these apprehensions, but spell out why they don't pertain to you. Just don't turn your interviewer into the aggressor by saying something like, "I'll bet you're worried that my low-key style means I can't be assertive enough with potential customers." All this will do is produce an immediate denial: "Oh, no. Not me. I wasn't thinking anything like that." Always ascribe negative suspicions to some unnamed third party.
Framing the Weakness Issue
When responding to the weakness question, another effective technique is to frame your answer before leaping to your own defense. In other words, start by explaining why you're approaching the answer the way you are:
"I'm never quite sure how to respond to the weaknesses question. I don't want to avoid it, because I think it's a fair question, and I think any candidate should be self-aware enough not to think they're perfect. Having said all that, let me say I don't think there are any fundamental issues or problems we have to be concerned about. That's why I'm so excited about this job."
When handled properly, rather than being a problem, the weaknesses question can be a chance to display your self-awareness, understanding of the employer's concerns and refreshing candor. If you seem honest and unafraid, interviewers are more likely to conclude that what they're seeing is what they'll get. Their defenses will go down, and you chances of getting the job will go up.
Douglas B. Richardson heads the Richardson Group (www.richardsongroup.org), a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor, CareerJournal.com, for over 20 years.