Tell me about your weaknesses

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Many interviewers ask this question without realising it is a bad question; properly trained interview-ers never use it and high performance interviewers would regard using a question like this as a fail-ure of their own skills. Here are the reasons:

  • It is far too vague
  • It promotes vacuous canned answers
  • It is so well known any empty answer will do
  • It does not differentiate between high and low performers based on their answers. Some say they use it to build rapport. However, building rapport is about getting the candi-date relaxed so that they open up. It is not about a banal pre-planned answer on a judgemental question.

Bernard Marr, an enterprise performance expert and a best-selling business author, wrote in a re-cent LinkedIn post that the reason some interviewers like to ask about weaknesses is to gain insight into how self-aware you are. There are much better ways to do this.

An experienced interviewer would have heard every clichéd answer to this question and will know when you are feeding them a line. Most important, interviewing employers are unable to find out if candidates are the right fit during a job interview by using the weakness question.

49 percent of employers say they can tell within the first five minutes of interviewing a candidate if he or she will make the cut, according to a new CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,000 HR and hiring managers. 90 percent of employers say their minds are made up by the 15-minute mark when a candidate is unable to demonstrate evidence of high performance.

The best interviewers will try to figure out if you are a high performer or not and if you fit into the or-ganization. They are also interested in how you handle tough questions. The purpose of every inter-view is to reveal accurately how a candidate will perform if they work for the organization in ques-tion. 

Many of the canned replies are partially dis-honest. After all, no candidate is going to say “I am a violent manipulative psychopath and assaulted my last boss”. Therefore, this is a time to be honest, at least to a certain degree, hopefully without ruining your chances at the opportunity. 

So what do you do?

1. Turn it in your favour.

Even though it is a poor interview question, you need to be ready for it. Turn the question to your advantage by giving a specific response that relates to the past and reveals how you overcame a weakness. 

2. Weaknesses do not exist, just challenges and solutions.

Try to tailor your responses to your specific job or task. You should always turn your weakness into a positive attribute. The trick is to talk about your weaknesses so that they can appear as strengths.

3. Give an Example:

Describe a situation where you had a challenge in the past. Be explicit about the task you had to perform. Describe the action you took. List the results you achieved. In your reply describe the attitude you took to solving the problem.

4. Do not prepare canned replies.

Any decent interviewer will see it is canned and this will not put you in a good light. They may even reject you there and then, although you will not know it. However, do have plenty of evidence of your previous successes ready to describe, and be ready to extemporise them in the flow of the interview. 

5. Be humble to win the job but be honest.

High performers will state it was them that made the difference in describing the actions they took and will not cloak it in faux modesty using “we” rather than “I” did it. 

6. Differentiate yourself.

Regardless of what strategy you use, your ultimate goal is to present yourself as a high performer whose actions are noticeably different from others. High per-formers are self-directed learners, who, if they are unsure how to do a task will proactively find the resources they need to complete it. So, be ready to describe how you faced failure, and how you went about solving the problem. Be specific, not vague about the actions you took and do not exaggerate. A good interviewer will probe how you did  what you did, so be ready to describe the actions you took, in detail.

7. Finally, if your interviewer is determined to ask about your weaknesses.

Answer this by saying: “If you would like to talk to my current/previous boss, s/he would probably say that my weaknesses are…..”. You might say that this is deflecting the question, and indeed it is, but it is doing so with a specific purpose. This way of answering is not about your weaknesses but about how coachable you are. Low performers will find it hard to give the answer and will fail the test it provides. High performers will find it easy. The interviewer is getting a clue about if s/he can coach you or not; that is good data for them, so be concise and precise with your reply.

Good Luck!

Kazu Sun