“And what would you say your weaknesses are, some opportunities for growth?”
“Well, I care too much. I’m a perfectionist, and I can be a bit of a workaholic.”
That was the wrong answer. Those aren’t weaknesses. Those are extra strengths that you are trying to sneak in, and you can bet on that job you probably just lost, that the interviewer saw through it.
Sure, it’s understandably the least liked interview question because it’s hard. Also, it tricky because you’ve spent so much time building yourself up with the company so that they would interview you, and now you’re supposed to expose your soft underbelly?
Not only is it counterintuitive to the job search process, it can make someone feel exposed and vulnerable. Most of us aren’t very good a facing our weaknesses (or, for a more positive spin, areas for improvement), and this setting doesn’t exactly feel like the best place for us to do it.
Inevitably, the question still comes up, so you have to be prepared for it. And your answer is just as important as the way you answer. This is a guide to answering that trickiest of interview questions in a way that will help you nail the interview, and move on to the offer round.
Consider the requirements of the job.
Remember, you should be prepared for this question. Review the requirements of the job and consider if your weaknesses are going to be significantly detrimental to your performance of the job or if they are just in the “other skills” section at the bottom of the job description. If it’s the latter, you’re probably in the clear. If you know that your areas for development are going to be a critical part of your day-to-day responsibilities, you may be setting yourself up for more of a struggle than a success. (For example, if the role you’re applying for requires innovation and creativity, either don’t mention that you’re a bad brainstormer, or better yet, don’t apply for the role in the first place.)
Don’t clam up or avoid the question.
This is about the way you answer the question. Interviewers want to know that you are introspective enough to know that this job is right for you. By showing that you know what your weaknesses are and being able to address them head-on, you will set yourself up as a confident and mature candidate.
Frame them positively
This does not mean to disguise your strength as weakness; anyone can see through that. This means that even if your interviewer asks what your “weaknesses” are, you should frame them as “areas for improvement” or “areas for development.” This small change steers the conversation in the direction of growth, rather than just sitting in the valley of your shortcomings.
Don’t just answer the question
Identify (honestly) what your challenge is, what you’re doing about it, and how it’s working out for you.
In addition to using more positive phrases, use this opportunity to showcase what you have done to address the areas where you don’t excel. Don’t just share one or two weaknesses and leave it at that. If you have issues with time management, share the app or the online course you have been using to help develop those skills. If you don’t have a lot of management experience, share the books you have been reading that will supplement the skills you haven’t had the opportunity to develop yet.
Most often, if this is a true weakness of yours, you know it because it has come up at work before. If you can illustrate when it has come up, and most importantly, what you have learned from this experience, you’ll demonstrate the self-awareness that your interviewer is looking for.
Examples of areas you might be working on include:
- Handling conflict: “I don’t love conflict, because I really value collaboration and cooperation. I have been working on this by carefully having the conversations I would have once avoided, in the interest of standing up for what I think is right, even in the face of clear disagreement from others. It’s been really constructive so far. I find my ideas being adopted more often now.”
- Prioritization: “I can have a hard time managing my time when there are competing priorities. I used to stay up all night in school to get everything done which I know is not sustainable. I’ve been working on a really deliberate prioritization system to help steer where I spend my time, and it’s made a world of difference. Now I get to produce great work and get a great night’s sleep!”
- Asking for help: “I can have a hard time asking for help because I always felt like I had to be self-sufficient. I have been working on this by identifying in advance where I might get overwhelmed and then deliberately asking for assistance. It’s been an eye-opening experience.”
Bring it back to your best strength
Not in the sneaky way, like you’re trying to slip something in just under the deadline, but in a confident and self-assured way. Once you’ve shared your area for development, and how you’re working on it, this is the right time to confidently bring up why your core strengths balance out your weaknesses. Speak to the fact that your strengths are much more suited to the job, and while your weaknesses are important to continue to work on, they are not a big part of what is required in the job.
Being asked about your weaknesses isn’t a no-win situation. Remember that every candidate is likely being asked the same question, so you’re not the only one hanging out there with a less-than-perfect skill set. By confidently stating what you’re doing about it, and how it’s going, your self-awareness will shine. If you’re not hired because of an area that you’re working on, it’s probably a blessing in disguise.
Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).