4 Tips for the Gotcha Question: What Are Your Weaknesses?

As a staffing and recruiting professional, I’ve been in hundreds of interviews. I make preparing candidates and clients for interviews part of my business because a successful interview means both parties can quickly see whether a job and candidate might actually fit together.

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But you would be amazed how many quality candidates botch one of the most frequent questions asked in interviews:

“What are your weaknesses?

Every candidate is different, and many answers are valid. The secret is to know what interviewers are looking for, both good and bad. They’re looking for an easy way to disqualify you (someone who answers that stealing is their weakness, for instance, is a quick and easy addition to the “no” pile.) Interviewers ask this question to see if you’re self aware. And honest. To learn what qualities might keep you, your projects, your teams, and the company from success. To hear that you’re making positive steps to change your challenges. Most employers consider weaknesses opportunities for growth. So answer in a way that shows you know about those opportunities and are working to address them.

Consider in your preparations the following techniques:

  1. Single out the skill you’re least confident in that is required by the job. “It sounds from our discussion today and from the job posting that this role requires marketing abilities, sales techniques, and account management. At my last sales job I didn’t get as much practice with account management as I would have liked. But I’m a quick learner and eager to apply what I know to being successful in the role. To make sure I’m up to speed quickly I would focus on developing even more account management skills.” Remember not to sound critical of a previous boss. There’s no blame in the above sentence. “Didn’t get as much practice as I would have liked” is not the same as “my boss micromanaged me so I never got a chance.” This is not the place to reveal that your weakness is being bitter and petty, or holding grudges.
  2. Weave a positive around your weakness. Business Insider writer Jaqueline Smith has a great example of this technique. She writes, “One area that I’m continually trying to improve is prioritization. I’m someone who likes to gain lots of new experiences and work with new people, so I tend to say yes to too many projects, and that’s created some issues for me in the past. I’ve been working on growing my project-management and prioritization skills to make sure that whenever I take on something new, I’m confident I can meet deadlines and turn in work at the level of quality I expect from myself.” Gorgeous.
  3. Ease the blow of your weakness by explaining that it’s only in certain situations that your challenge appears. “When meetings go on for a long time, I find it challenging to stay patient. So I try to eat a snack before every meeting and have had good success with staying engaged in the team’s process that way.” Everyone is grumpy when they’re hungry or tired. It’s not unreasonable to say you’ve noticed this about yourself and are working to avoid the circumstances that trigger your undesirable behaviors.
  4. Focus on weaknesses that aren’t part of the job you’re applying for. For instance the writer who thoughtfully announces to an interviewer, “I’m not always comfortable using formulae in Excel.” This is a risky strategy, because that can’t be your worst weakness in a writing job, and the interviewer may not feel the need to ferret out your true weaknesses.

Whether you use one of these approaches or find another solution, don’t ignore the question. Don’t claim you’re a perfectionist or that you work too hard. Don’t tell an interviewer that you disdain working on teams, resist feedback, flounder if asked to work independently, or deflect responsibility.

Because you do want the job, don’t you?

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