Frequently Asked Interview Questions: Describe Your Biggest Weakness

By Joe Stein

This week, we continue our on-going series where we attempt to solve the riddle of the interview questions you are most likely to hear (you can review all the past versions by logging on to www.wnyjobs.com and entering the column archive section). In this edition, we examine what to do when you are asked to describe your biggest weakness.
 
When I am in the role of an interviewer, I actually ask the question a bit differently. I like to ask a person about their developmental areas. We all have those…it is basically asking the same thing but it appears to allow people to open up and be less defensive. This is, however, not the way most ask this question, so be prepared for the blunter version…the dreaded “weakness”.
 
You may wonder why this question is even asked. I tend to think (in decades past) it was a way to make the person being interviewed a little uncomfortable. Make them change gears a bit from everything they do well (the strengths) and see how they react.  I think, for the most part, that mentality has morphed into wanting to know if there is an area that a person is not particularly strong in. I know I, however, ask a variation of the question for an entirely different reason. I happen to believe strongly that having a self-effacing quality is important to be successful (maybe it isn’t if you are a ruthless tycoon, but how many openings are there for that job?).
 
What You Should Do When Faced With this Question:
 
·         Have an Answer – You know it is coming, so don’t act like you never expected it. Like any of our frequently asked questions, plan ahead and know what you are going to say. Don’t pretend like you don’t have any weaknesses or are perfect in every way. I have actually had candidates who could not provide me an area of development. I wasn’t sure if this was due to arrogance, perfection, or being unprepared.
 
·         Avoid the Crucial – You want to have an answer, but you don’t want it to be one that you can’t overcome, either through your own effort or some basic training. You don’t want your answer to be a crucial part of the job. So, if you are interviewing for a data entry position, you can’t have typing errors be your weakness. If you are applying for a healthcare position, you can’t have as your weakness that you don’t like working with people. If you are wondering how to know what the crucial parts of the job are, I suggest taking a look at the job posting. Whatever is being emphasized will probably be the areas that are crucial.
 
 
·         Show How You Manage It – This question inherently brings out the negative…you are discussing something you don’t do as well as other items. It will help you in answering this question if you can quickly transition your answer to how you have managed well with it (even better how you are taking steps to actively address or solve it). This will show that you are proactive and dedicated to continually getting better.
 
·         Be Prepared for Follow-Up Question – If you have a savvy interviewer, he or she is not going to allow you to get off easily with a “fluffy” answer such as “sometimes I work too hard” or “I try not to say no when someone asks me for something”.  This is called the old “turning a positive into a negative” in an attempt to catch the interviewer “napping”. An experienced interviewer will recognize this non-answer immediately (hopefully they don’t roll their eyes or outwardly groan in front of you) and ask you why this is really a weakness. If you are going to take a chance and go in this direction, you may catch a break and this answer will suffice, but you are inviting more discussion on a question that you want over as soon as possible.
 
·         Have More than One Ready – Some interviewers will assume you have one answer that you have prepared. They will, therefore, ask you for one more after you have given your answer (in particular, if your first one was too “fluffy” to be accepted). You don’t want to draw a blank, so prepare a back-up “just in case”. Don’t share it unless you need to.
 
·         Stay Calm – Most of us have a real difficult time discussing our strengths. Bringing up our areas of weakness is just that much more difficult to do. Your preparation on this question will help you immensely as you can share the message you have ready to go. This should calm your nerves and allow you to answer directly and quickly.
 
Answering the “biggest weakness” question takes as much finesse as Wallenda walking a tight rope. You want to come across as genuine, however, you don’t want this to come at the expense of an answer that will hurt your chances of landing the position. The focus should be on providing a real response that focuses on an area that is not considered to be essential to the job.            
 
As always, best of luck in your job search!