When it comes to job interviews, anticipating the question “What are your weaknesses?” is a big worry for many candidates.
While being worried about this question is understandable, if you know how to respond, you should have nothing to worry about – in fact, you may even be able to leverage your answer to your advantage.
Here’s an example: I once interviewed a candidate who came across as dull during the course of our conversation; this trait bothered me. But when it came time to talk about his weaknesses, the candidate spoke candidly about how he’s always had difficulty communicating in a dynamic way since he is a bit shy by nature.
His thoughtful and candid answer had a big impact on me and on my opinion of him. I immediately realized that he was aware of his weakness and that he was ready to address it. It was a real-world experience that proved the old saying: “A fault confessed is half redressed.”
It isn’t a trap question – as long as you prepare for it!
I’m always surprised when recruiters tell me that they consider a question about a candidate’s weaknesses to be a trap. The reality is that these questions are essential to understanding the capacity of the candidate, to become acquainted with the person and to recognize their limitations.
As a candidate, you can expect that the question will usually be asked toward the end of the interview. It’s a classic question and, as such, can be anticipated and prepared for.
The formula for the question varies. Some recruiters prefer to use the terms “areas of improvement” or “areas to watch” instead of weak points or weaknesses. A recruiter might also ask several versions of the same question, so prepare yourself accordingly.
Keep in mind that there are no “good” or “bad” weaknesses; there are simply good and bad ways of presenting the weaknesses you have.
I’ve often heard that candidates shouldn’t put forward “perfectionism” as their weakness, as it has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché. This is good advice, but if being a perfectionist is, in fact, your weakness, you can say so. However, do so in a way that shows how the term specifically applies to you and your way of working.
What to Avoid
First, it’s important not to take an eternity to respond to questions about your weaknesses. No recruiter says to themselves: “It seems like he’s having a hard time naming a weakness. This means he doesn’t have any – that’s a good sign!”
In fact, the opposite is true. Studies have shown that the employees who have the most difficulty at work are also those who have the hardest time identifying their own weaknesses. They are not inclined to change their ways, since they can’t even put their finger on what needs changing.
If you take too long to answer a question about your weaknesses, a recruiter may believe that you are lacking self-knowledge, or that you lack humility.
The way that you respond to such questions will reveal as much about your personality as your answer itself. If you are too careful in your response, a recruiter could get the impression that you’re afraid to “look bad”, a trait that could indicate you have a hard time accepting criticism.
Also: don’t bother mentioning weaknesses that don’t relate to your work, or that aren’t really weaknesses (as in, traits that have no direct impact on your work). No recruiter is interested in hearing these details – they will just feel like you’re wasting their time and they will ask you the question again.
It’s also important to avoid giving generic responses. Faced with questions about their shortcomings, many candidates recite a pre-prepared answer that lacks any personality or spontaneity, which makes it seem like they just want to get away from the question.
“I can sometimes be impatient when I’m really busy. There, I’m finished! What’s your next question?”
It’s important not to tell the recruiter how to interpret your answer, either.
“I’m impatient, but don’t think that I have a bad temper, or that I’m ever impatient with my boss.”
First and foremost, be yourself. To prepare yourself for such questions, ask yourself honestly: What are my professional weak points? Ask for input from people close to you if you have a hard time coming up with an answer.
Afterwards, think about the reasons that led to your answer. Try to identify one or two concrete steps you could take to overcome your weaknesses. Also, identify the times when your weaknesses show through most strongly.
This information will help you answer questions about your weak points honestly and thoughtfully. The recruiter will see a person who is able to reflect on their own strengths and shortcomings, and who has a strong potential for growth.
Being precise is key to framing your purpose in a way that is attractive to recruiters. For example, if you only say that you have a hard time managing conflicts and don’t add anything else, the recruiter will assume that you face this problem every day, with everyone in your life, both personally and professionally.
However, if you can be specific in your response, the recruiter will have a better understanding of what you’re saying and see the wisdom you’re demonstrating.
“I’ve come to realize that in times of intense stress, I have a hard time asserting myself when dealing with a conflict with my superiors and, if I’m not careful, I have a tendency to avoid problems.”
The secret to successful preparation is found in practice. Try responding several times to questions about your weak points with someone you’re close to. I suggest preparing three or four weaknesses in advance of any interview, so you don’t get caught off guard! Don’t be afraid to go deep in this exercise, which requires you to reflect on yourself and your behavior – it’s well worth the effort!
By: Mathieu Guénette