The Dreaded Weakness Question

How do you handle the weakness question?

People fear the question.  It's a scary thing to hear heading your way.  Luckily, you don't hear it as much anymore.  Most companies have upped their interview game, so you can breathe a little sigh of relief.  Hearing this question is often a signal that this is not a forward-thinking company.  Or at least this is a company that needs to seriously invest in their HR processes.  Some experts advise leaving the interview immediately if you hear the weakness question.  I wouldn't go that far, but I do think there are better questions to find out where people lack skills and expertise.  But what do you do if it comes out?  What do you do if you're staring down the barrel of the weakness question wondering what to say that won't get you cut?  How do you stay in contention for your dream job?

Why it's difficult?

No one wants to mess up in an interview.  The hiring process is designed to efficiently weed out poor candidates and find the best fit.  And up until the final round of interviews, most people are looking at ways to weed you out.  We know this.  And that's what makes interviewing in general scary.  But the weakness question puts a lot of people flat-footed.  We want to real but not too real.  We want to keep things positive but not too positive.  It can be difficult to decide the perfect balance of information to share to stay in the game.  So here are few don'ts and a few do's that can help you prepare to navigate the question.  

A Few Don'ts

  • The Superhero - don't try to pretend you have no weaknesses.  Don't rephrase it and tell them you have strengths and "less than strengths".  Someone with no weaknesses does not exist.  Honestly, I can't think of one!  This is a big no go.    

  • The Too Honest Abe - don't overshare.  If it's a marketing job and you tell them your weakness is creativity, then you are in trouble.  Sometimes interviewers will try to get you comfortable so you'll really open up.  There is a fine line between sharing just enough.  Keep your brand message in mind.

  • The Days of Yore - don't pull something from High School.  Don't tell people that you used to have difficulty getting to class or had trouble with Algebra II.  The interviewer will assume you're covering something up if you have to go back and pull from the ages.  

  • The Eye Roller - don't use the lame, easy answer.  My weakness is that I work too hard!  Hopefully, you know this already, but that is going to get an eye roll every time.  That is a big non-answer answer.  Leave that one alone.

The Do's

  • Be Authentic - answer with something real.  Depending on how long you've been in the workforce, you are probably clear on a few different things where you don't stand out.  It's OK to be honest a degree.  I know I can frustrate my team if I come up with ideas after they feel like something is completed.  I like to tinker and sometimes that last 10% is an energy killer.  If something is at 90%, I still have ideas that can perfect it.  But sometimes it's not worth the effort.  That's my cross to bear.  It helps to know thyself.  What are the things that you need to work on?  Honestly.  Answer that - seriously.  And then follow the other Do's.

  • Use Common Sense - Remember the 3 keys to the role.  You have to find these in the job description during your interview prep.  Never pick a weakness even remotely related to the 3 key skills.  It's common sense but bears repeating.  If it's a production role, maybe disorganization is a bad weakness.  If it's finance, maybe don't use math.  This seems obvious, but I've heard it happen.  Use your noodle.

  • Add (a little) Distance - the weakness can be from a previous job.  A little distance can soften the edge on the weakness.  Keep it relatively recent, but position it as something you learned about in the past.  In a previous role, I received 360 results that said I could do X (a little micromanagement, lack of strategic thinking, competitiveness, etc.) a little.  Just be careful not make it sound like it's old news or they'll ask you for a more recent weakness.  But it can be something you've been reflecting on for a while.  This shows openness.

  • Show Growth - this is the most important part.  You need to communicate what you've done and what you currently do to manage the weakness.  The phrase you are looking for is, So what I do now is...  Again, this has to be authentic.  You have to actually share what you are doing to address the issue.  And you have to be doing those things.  If you are not growing, that's a whole other issue.  Take the opportunity to share how you've managed the weakness.  What systems or habits are in place?  How do you collect feedback if the weakness rears its head?  Share how you've grown.  Leave a little space so it's still a current weakness.  You'll show your self-awareness, your personality, and you'll come off as an actual human.  

My Example

I like to work collaboratively and often have a lot of ideas on how to make things better.  But sometimes - especially when working with people on my team - they don't want any more ideas.  They want to call something done.  And there is a risk if I add more value than is needed.  So what I do now is co-create a "finish line" for projects up front so we both know when we've arrived at "done".  I also share that I love to brainstorm and give feedback - and it helps if we're clear when they want to bounce things back and forth and when something is ready to be crossed off the to-do list.  It's something I still need to keep an eye on, but have a system in place to manage.  

It's not perfect, but it's real.  And this approach has helped me transition to some pretty cool roles during my career and it's helped a lot of clients.  So take the opportunity to prepare for the weakness question.  Be real, use your noodle, and go get 'em.  Happy (job) hunting...

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- Mike Sweeney,