What Are Your Weaknesses?

Whether you’re interviewing for an internship or for a job in the Senior Executive Service, your interviewer may ask you that old “What are your weaknesses?” question. But even interviewers who still ask that widely reviled question recognize its limitations. “No one realistically expects to receive brutally honest answers like, ‘I’m below-average intelligence and difficult to work with,’ ” said Heidi McAllister, an environmental educator who has hired dozens of professionals into government and nonprofit organizations.

Why interviewers ask that question

So why do interviewers keep asking a question that — without the help of a truth serum — rarely elicits full disclosure? Because interviewers say that even skewed answers can help reveal whether applicants possess key qualities such as self-awareness, humility, sincerity, zest, and skill in managing shortcomings and mistakes.

By reflecting such qualities in your response, “you can really distinguish yourself and stand out from the pack,” said Robin Sawyer, who has helped screen applicants for a D.C. nonprofit conservation group.

Keeping Your Credibility

Sawyer said, “The worst answers are ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have no weaknesses’ — which I hear frequently.” (Sorry, Superman, the credibility meter just hit zero.)

“When I get unbelievable or evasive answers, I suspect that the applicant isn’t the straight shooter I want to hire,” McAllister said.

What, then, is a strong answer to the weakness question? Conventional wisdom has long recommended responses such as “I’m a perfectionist” or “I’m a workaholic, so my boss has to peel my fingers back from my computer one by one every night to make me go home.” But by now, interviewers recognize those canned clichés as such, McAllister said.

Therefore, to remain credible, many interviewers now suggest counterbalancing a true but noncritical gap in your knowledge against your desirable traits. For example, Rajul Pandya, who manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s internship program, hired an applicant who described how she had bolstered her understanding of a technical issue by taking classes and requesting additional job assignments that addressed the issue.

Her answer won over Pandya because “I want to hire people who can say, ‘I’ve thought about what I don’t do so well and have taken action to do it better.’ ”

Similarly, Peter Feldman, an International Trade and Development Consultant and an experienced interviewer, recommends tackling weakness questions by saying, “In my last job, I underestimated the importance of X. So in the future, I’ll focus more energy on that.”

McAllister advises “showcasing your commitment to staying current in your field, a prized quality.” Say: “I try to continually update my skills. This year, I’d like to take training in the latest techniques in X, so that I will do Y faster and more efficiently.”

Alternatively, Erin Weinman, a federal information technology project manager, landed a choice job after acknowledging, “I’ve never worked for this organization before, so I have a lot to learn about it. But I offer new perspectives and energetic approaches.”

You can also conquer such questions by packaging strengths within weaknesses. Nancy Bachrach, an advertising account manager for a national publication, has impressed hiring managers by revealing that her inclination to quickly complete projects can cause errors, so she double-checks and proofreads all her work.

Carefully Deflecting Potential Liabilities

In addition to confronting open-ended weakness questions, you may be asked about skills that you do, in fact, lack. “Don’t just say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ ” advised Howard Hyman, the former director of the U.S. Mint’s large accounting office.”Give me reasons to believe in you: Explain how your knowledge, willingness to do extra and ability to learn quickly will help you improve. Describe how you’d swiftly catch up and have done so previously.”

And what if you sense that an unspoken liability, if left ignored, may silently doom you? Perhaps, for example, you suspect that you’re perceived as too young, too old, an outsider, too entrenched, overqualified, overly aggressive or too passive.

“Anticipating a concern is a good idea because it shows insight and that you’re on the same wavelength as interviewers,” said Ray Kurzweil, founder of nine high-tech companies and a best-selling author. But he warned, “Don’t reveal key weaknesses that interviewers wouldn’t otherwise notice.”

How to Prepare Your Answer

The top reason for interview failure is lack of preparation, interviewers say. So be ready to discuss your weaknesses by

1. Selecting one technical or administrative weakness for your answer. Just one—this is no time to get effusive!

2. Practicing an explanation of how you previously or currently compensated for a weakness or liability, and what you’ve learned from mistakes. Craft earnest pitches that omit deal-busting deficiencies and will withstand further questioning and reference checks.

3. Role-playing with friends your answers to weaknesses and other common interview questions. The paradox of practice: The more you rehearse, the more spontaneous and smarter you will sound.

Lily Whiteman is the author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job”; Twitter: @Lilymwhiteman

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Darrell Hamilton

Being prepared is certainly a key, however, don’t be surprised if the interviewer finds a way to ask a similar question, but forces you to consider only a limited range of possible answers. For example, I was once asked, “what has been your biggest professional mistake?” I’m sure someone is constantly coming up with new ways to phrase old questions. The best way to prepare is to have several possible answers in mind but reveal only one. Also take notes after the interview on what you told them. You may find where you get follow-up questions and depending on the situation, you may either want to repeat or avoid repeating what you already said.

Mark Hammer

Personally, I think the “correct” response to the question is “I always end up saying the wrong thing in response to this question”, though “I always forget to clean up my fingerprints at the scene” runs a pretty close second.

Anyone who has been through one or more thesis defenses will likely have experienced the legendary “out-of-left-field” question from a committee member. Such questions crop up largely because the committee member has not really read the thesis, or more than a few pages of it. And since they can’t look like an idiot in front of their peers, they ask something YOU won’t be prepared for, to cover up their own lack of preparation (and obviously they won’t have any sort of retort/rebuttal for what you reply).

My sense is that the “what are your weaknesses?” question emanates from the same sort of place. That is, the interviewer has little idea of what they are, or ought to be, looking for, so they ask an out-of-left-field question. Yes, the responses CAN be revealing, but it is a question born of lack of insight rather than deep insight about what the job requires. After all, what you reveal about yourself may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with the job itself, or may not be presented in a manner that allows the interviewer to figure out how it might relate to the job. But I suppose they get lucky enough, often enough, that the question remains in their repertoire.

Perhaps the way to eventually eliminate it from that repertoire is, when the interviewer asks at the end “Did you have any questions?”, to reply “What do you find are the greatest weaknesses of this organization?”.

Sheena Pietzold

One of the toughest interview questions I’ve had was “what does success mean to you?” What made it more awkward was that after I responded (saying something along the lines of I think I’m successful if I meet business needs AND create something I’m proud of), the person who asked me the question looked at the others on the interview panel and said “see, I knew SOMEONE would understand what I was looking for.” I guess that means I gave a good answer…

I always try to prepare for three general questions (and I’ll add that one as a fourth): 1) describe what diversity means to you and how would you add diversity to this group? 2) what are your strengths/weaknesses? and 3) give an example of when you had a conflict with a coworker (or other person), and how did you resolve it?

Mark Hammer

While sufficient research supports the notion of structured interviews, consistently administered, being better (i.e., more predictive of subsequent performance; not to mention less subject to litigation and grievances) than unstructured interviews, the specific content of such interviews doesn’t generally receive as much scrutiny. It’s good to ask the same questions in the same manner and same order, of all candidates, but are all the questions truly informative and predictive, or are some merely benign filler to turn a 5-minute interview into 15-20 minutes?

Based on Sheena’s experience, one wonders if these sorts of questions are actually predictive of later employee performance, or merely provide hiring managers with a sort of “comfort blanket” when they make selections based on other criteria. I suppose it is possible they might be, but my guess is probably not, simply because it is not clear if the responses are scorable, hence amenable to being lined up against later performance, and defensible diagnostics.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Those of you who may have been the asker, rather than the answerer, was the information provided by candidates actually usable, and how exactly did you use the information gained in response to the item? How much weight did it have in your personnel selection decisions. Was it a make-or-break thing, or added to other information? Was it used to make competency ratings of any kind?

Peter Sperry

Having been on both ends of more interviews than I care to remember, I would say that structured interviews are an almost complete waste of time. You might as well just administer an aptitude test. The best interviews are honest free flowing conversations that may start with similar questions but quickly take on new directions based on responses and followup questions. Structure interviews where. Every candidate is asked the same questions in the same way and in the same order are only helpful if you like cookie cutter employees who can all fit a single mold. They are useless for identifying strengths and weaknesses of individuals. If research is showing otherwise, the design of the study must be flawed. And yes, asking candidates to identify weaknesses is a very valuable way to probe self awareness and honesty. Many candidates will give the “I am too much of a perfectionist” response which allows you to wrap up quickly and move on to someone you might actually want to hire. But the ones who can identify a real and serious problem along with a realistic means to mitigate or correct it are worth moving on to the next round. Another question I have used is: “Your supervisor decides on a course of action which is legal, ethical, affordable and incredibly stupid. Although your supervisor listens to your analysis and understands why you believe the idea is unwise, they decide to move forward with it anyway and want you to take charge of the project. How do you respond?” We recently hired a new analyst and the responses to this question ranged from outright refusal to accept such a project to wondering why anyone would tell their boss his/her idea was stupid. One wet behind the ears applicant was stunned into disbelief that such a situation could arise but finally responded “Well, if my boss listened to my analysis and carefully considered my thinking but decided to go ahead anyway, I would respect their position, hope they know more than me and do my best to make the project successful.” He has been one of the best hires we have made in years.

Mark Hammer

Peter and I are not quite as far apart on this as might appear.

1) Many assessment professionals would likely concur that a structured interview may not put one further ahead than simply administering a cognitive ability test. The thing is that hiring managers are disinclined to put their faith in test scores, no matter how much R&D has been sunk into the development of a validated, reliable, predictive test. They still want to see it with their own eyes, and being handed a test score is, for them, a bit like going to a 5-star restaurant and having the meal described to you instead of tasting it.

2) What fits into a structured interview may well NOT extract the sort of information most telling about a given candidate, when compared to an honest free-flowing conversation. But the sad fact is that many managers are not skilled in administering these, and many candidates are not comfortable with them or shine in them (e.g., some cultures are much less likely to tout their virtues than others). It is also the case that manager slip-ups in such unscripted interactions can be the basis for grievances and litigation (e.g., by asking questions disallowed by federal or state anti-discrimination law). So, I don’t doubt that they work well for you. I do doubt that they always work well, and seamlessly, for all hiring managers and candidates.

3) There is, admittedly, a difference between “performance” and “deal-breakers”. In addition to the promise of performance, part of what hiring managers look for, is signs and omens that (as a former director of mine put it) “the hire won’t blow up in your face”. That is, whether you can work with them. All the best-practice forms of assessment, including the recommendation to use structured interviews, on top of paper-and-pencil or other standardized tests, are predicated on assessing the promise of performance. But “performance” is almost orthogonal to “whether I can work with them”. Highly capable people can end up being a royal pain, poor fit to the existing team, and even a destructive influence, even though they score high on the specific skillsets required for the job, and are quick learners.

I suppose, for me, the overarching question is whether such information is reliably extracted from all candidates, and whether the manager’s judgment is reliable. Paper-and-pencil instruments are soundly pretested during development to examine item-to-total correlations, and a host of other psychometric characteristics, where interview questions tend to be chosen on the basis of face validity, tradition, and a host of other factors not subject to particular rigor. There will obviously be some clearcut instances where anyone watching through a one-way glass would mutter “I’m sure glad I don’t have to work with them”. But there will also be instances where several observers might draw very different inferences from the candidate’s response. That part worries me, since someone’s employment may be riding on it. It is also a weak link when it comes to claims of discrimination.