Out of all the possible interview questions, there’s one that you probably dread getting most: “What’s your biggest weakness?” can strike even the most confident candidate with a cold sweat.
Sometimes job seekers will answer the question with what I like to call a “back-handed weakness” – a “weakness” that they think will be viewed as a strength, like “I’m a workaholic” or “I have some serious perfectionist tendencies.”
When I was a hiring manager, I was not very impressed by those answers for a several reasons:
I felt that the candidate was telling me what they thought I wanted to hear instead of being thoughtful and honest about their answer;
Being a workaholic or a perfectionist isn’t a good thing;
Those answers don’t demonstrate much self-awareness.
I’ve observed is that weakness usually arises when someone is overusing a strength. Here’s how I advise answering the “biggest weakness” question:
Think of a time when you relied too heavily on a strength and it caused a problem,
Share what you learned from it and how you changed your behavior,
How this lesson has benefited you and your employer.
Here’s how this might go in an interview:
What is your biggest weakness?
I like my autonomy and I’m usually able to get my work done with very little assistance from others. That is usually fine, but last year I was given a new project that had a lot of moving parts to it and a tight deadline. I jumped in like I usually do and ran into some issues getting data I needed from a database that I hadn’t had much experience with.
Instead of asking my boss to assign someone to help me with the system, I just tried to figure it out for myself. The day that the report was due she checked in and I was way behind and she had to drop everything to help me get it done on time. It became a huge fire drill.
What I learned was that though my independence is good in some cases, I need to recognize much earlier when I need help. Now when I’m assigned a new project, I’ll review it and make sure I’m clear on what needs to be done. If I anticipate needing assistance to complete it on time, I’ll ask for it well ahead of time so I can deliver on expectations. Since I’ve taken this tack, my projects have all been delivered on time and I’ve learned that my co-workers don’t mind helping as long as I give them enough advance notice.
As an interviewer what I like about this approach is that it shows humility and the candidate is not pretending to be perfect. This approach demonstrates that you have the confidence to admit when you’ve made a mistake and that you have the self-awareness to learn from it. Everyone makes the occasional mistake and it’s what they do in response that distinguishes great employees from others.
Terry B. McDougall, Professional Certified Coach, MBA