how to answer “what are your weaknesses?”

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Rowan Manahan at Fortify Your Oasis has started a new project, “The Definitive Guide to Clearing Job-Hunt Hurdles,” in which lots of bloggers are contributing advice on various parts of the job-seeking process. Here’s some advice from me on a topic that seems to stymie even savvy job-hunters: the weaknesses question.

Some variation of “what are your weaknesses?” is going to come up in every interview. How do you talk about weaknesses when you’re trying to sell yourself?

First, here’s what not to do: Don’t try to offer up a strength taken too far — perfectionism, you work too hard, you can’t leave the job at the office, etc. This is widely recognized as disingenuous b.s. and you’ll be seen as evading the question.

What should you do? Well, I’ll warn you up front that my approach to this is unorthodox, but I believe it’s the right one.

When I’m interviewing you, I’m not your adversary, so don’t treat me like one by trying to snow me. If you’re a good fit for the job, I want to find that out and hire you … and if you’re not a good fit, I want to find that out so that I don’t put you in a job that you’ll struggle with and even risk getting fired from. Assuming you want to land a position where you’ll thrive, this should be your goal too — and honesty is more likely to get us there.

So that means you should come clean about weaknesses. I’m not going to be shocked to discover you have some; we all do. The question is just how they’ll fit with this particular position, something we should both be interested in.

Here’s part one of formulating your answer: Think seriously about your weak points. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your work skills or persona, what would it be?

And here’s part two: What are you doing about it?

Your answer in the interview should consist of both parts. It might sound something like this: “When I first started in the work world, I found that I wasn’t as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of everything I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks and all my priorities are correct. I’ll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one.”

I like this example because it takes a weakness — disorganization — that normally would raise a huge red flag for me, and instead shows how the person is neutralizing it as a problem.

[Now, occasionally your interviewer might follow up with (as I sometimes do), "That's a great description of how you overcame a weakness. Tell me about one you're still struggling with." If this happens, you should still use the two-part formula -- follow up the weakness with what you're doing to work on it. It's okay that you're not perfect yet; no one is. The question is just how it will impact the job.]

I know this goes counter to a lot of the advice out there about not showing any real weaknesses. But I think that plays to the wrong goal. Your goal shouldn’t be to get a job, any job. It should be to get the right job for you.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Wally Bock

    This is a great post with good advice. There’s some language that I suggest my coaching clients use, that may be helpful here. We say that the strategy for weaknesses is: to make them irrelevant.

  2. Chris

    I also found this to be a good post. Unlike Wally, however, I’m not sure I feel that making weaknesses irrelevant is a good tactic. They aren’t irrelevant and the risk of making them appear so is that you’ll end up in a position where you repeatedly have to encounter them.

    Instead, I think it’s better for people to become *very aware* of what their strengths and weaknesses are. Most people probably have a good idea, but sometimes it’s hard to communicate. But you must! You want to be placed into a position where you are fully engaged with your strengths and only the required effort is applied to weaknesses. Research shows that improving your weaknesses is not as efficient or effective as improving strengths (Gallup).

    Identify your weaknesses and find out how much of the position will require you to use them. Obviously do the same for your strengths. Hopefully you both employer and candidate will find that “perfect fit” as a result.

  3. Lisa

    It really does come down to fit in the job hunt. I am often the interviewer not paying as much to what the candidate’s answer was to a question but more so how they went about answering it. I am looking for authenticity, awareness, willingness to learn, taking actions to grow. . . this I can work with. A fully capable, I can do no wrong person would not fit well with me or on my team.

  4. Karen

    I could not agree more with your post here! This is exactly the kind of thing I want to hear candidates say when I ask them about a weakness. We’ve seen candidates try every other approach under the sun – including the “I don’t have any weaknesses” approach and NOTHING is more effective than this two stage approach!

  5. Chuck

    Great post, and I just discovered your site through a pointed comment about video resumes on employee evolution.

    Consider me a new subscriber to your RSS.

  6. Anonymous

    I find that this question itself is the absolute *weakest* thing a manager can actually ask. There is no real point to it at all. You say there is one, but frankly, it’s merely part of the dance. Even the two part answer has no real meaning. Think about it. Even though they aren’t performing the “I’m perfect” answer, the person still has to find some kind of two part answer just in case some manager is hackneyed and unoriginal enough to ask this question, and it’s just a hoop to jump through.

    The best employers I’ve ever worked for never felt the need to ask this question. They could actually tell by my interest in the position and experience and explaining past challenges and projects and my portfolio and references that I was qualified. That was enough expansive data. They didn’t need to whip out this useless, weak question.

    1. Anonymous

      I have to agree it is a stupid question to ask. Nobody wants to admit to a weakness especially to a potential employer….if you say the wrong thing it may lose the position.

      I have read all the answers given by everyone, and to be honest would you really hire someone to run your office if they said I am disorganized but I make a list to make sure I don’t miss anything????

      I have to agree, that the employers should look at your resume, see your experience and take it from there, and if they really want to know how you work then call your references…people usually use past employers or co-workers for references and who better to ask than someone you worked with or for.

    2. Smiling

      I agree, I mean what kind of ? is this to be asking on an interview anyway. I mean who do you know will honestly tell you they true weaknesses when they are trying to think at that very moment a good answer to come up with so that they can get the job. DUH…I mean 4 real. And i to agree that some of the best jobs, and best companies that, I know of DO NOT ask this ? because to me its just plain stupid to ask bottom line.

  7. almostgotit.com

    Great post, and I appreciate all the professional advice-from-the-hiring-POV that I can get. Especially as I am thinking of going into the interviewee business professionally (do you know anyone who’s hiring?)

    Here’s my biggest weakness: I’m too human to be absolutely honest and self-revealing, when of course the interviewer isn’t being absolutely honest or self-revealing either. We are looking for a good mutual fit, but until I’m hired, we are each chiefly operating out of self-interest. Of course we are.

    Assuming the interviewer is also human, I wonder if the best approach on both sides, if we really are trying to find the best fit TOGETHER, is to be honest (yes) but also to focus (maybe) on more positive questions? E.G., management guru Peter Drucker (and Chris, above) both point out that we do best to focus on a candidate’s strengths, and how best to apply and use them. I’ve no doubt that a keen interviewer will still be able to smoke out any untoward pomposity, etc… and both may well find the whole conversation quite congenial (vs. adversarial)

  8. apu

    great advice – the only issue being that sometimes when the person is desperate to have “any” job, it seems like a risky strategy. However, yes, experienced interviewers can easily smell the ‘positive-disguised-as-negative’ bit after a while.

  9. Working Girl

    It’s funny because I was just mulling over this very topic (couldn’t sleep last night).

    Here’s my idea: A good job is one that capitalizes on your strengths. A great job is one that capitalizes on your strengths AND your weaknesses.

    Example: Years ago I got a job as a scientific editor. I know nothing about science. But it was my very lack of knowledge that made me a good editor—I was editing documents to make them understandable by non-scientists. So it behooved me to not drink the scientific Kool-Aid and retain my ignorant outsider status. (Hey, I split that infinitive on purpose!)

    Chris mentioned that “science” is showing that it’s better to concentrate on building strengths than to fix weaknesses. But isn’t there a way to leverage our weaknesses, to make them work for us?

    This is an idea I’d love to see you explore more deeply.

  10. Anonymous

    I arrived at this thread in researching something totally alien to this conversation. Nonetheless, I find it interesting but, I believe the question to be both absurd and, quite likely, practiced by those with little imagination in hiring talent.

    Having been self-employed for virtually my entire adult life and having achieved uncommon success, I’ve had the opportunity to interview and hire others (to work for me) but have never been subjected to being interviewed by a prospective employer.

    In retrospect, I would have had a difficult time answering the question as, with respect to my job, I feel I’ve had no weaknesses and, for the most part, I can say that was true of my employees as well.

    Okay; why is this question what is your greatest weakness absurd.

    What answer(s) might be expected?

    ”I’m a perfectionist who cares too much about the customer and I take my work home with me and constantly think about how (blank) can be improved to benefit the company as well as the customer experience!” (I really need to learn to take a break from work.)

    Yeah! But, I really want to know are you an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a thief or one of questionable honesty/ethics who will rarely show up on time and…

  11. Anonymous

    In my 15+ years of experiences, only HR types of people ask this sort of question. I have never had a business manager ask me this. They usually can deduce from asking questions about past experiences.

  12. Anonymous

    Great post. Thanks. I’ve got an interview in 19 minutes and this will be handy!!! gulp!

  13. Anonymous

    I hate this question, because all the interviewee has to do is basically what you did; turn it into a strength(a clever lie). Sounds like being organized is one of your strengths in your example. You're not finding out a true weakness. Only an imbecile would tell you that.

    Its an unfair question, a dumb question, deceptive, and I see it only as one to throw an interviewee off(or show how naive you are).

    The question should be "Identify a weakness you had in the past, and tell me how you neutralized it."
    That is not a trick question, and it doesn't comes off like you're an idiot that expects someone to cleverly lie to your face.

  14. Anonymous

    This it truly an idiotic question gauged by the number of clever respones other bloggers have thought up.

    No one in there right mind would tell a prospective employer their real weaknesses if they ever hope to get a job. If you've corrected it, then it's not a weakness anymore so why mention it as a weakness in an interview?

    As an employer I would never ask this question. There are much better ways to determine a candidates ability and character.

  15. Anonymous

    I think the question itself is too fuzzy because whether something is a weakness or strength is relative and highly contextual. So when one asks for a catalogue of my weaknesses I would like to know in what context. Is it in context of my current job, the one I am applying for or personal? If personal then it becomes even more complex for different worldviews, religions and beliefs would define strengths and weaknesses differently. So asking a person to list their weaknesses is totally pointless. All you need (as a prospective employer) is a list of ones attributes and/or abilities. You can then decide what you think will/will not work for the job you are offering in order to identify a suitable candidate.

  16. Mas

    Well I think the employers are trying to test your ability to reply a silly question with a clever answer.

  17. Anonymous

    What if my weakness is reading blog posts when I should be working? What am I doing to improve? Reading blog posts about improving my weaknesses and then asking the author and comment writers how I might turn this weakness into a strength.

    ooo, Lilo is in trouble again…

  18. Anonymous

    Loved reading the multitude of answers to my questions . Prosperity is more than green. The perfect job is the job you are fitted to. It’s like a pair of shoes. If it fits walk. Ha-Ha. These days a laugh is needed. Not to be taken away from the subject . Just a joyful breather to help us through the day. Intelligence comes in a lot of different packages and I am so glad I opened this one. My interveiws should increase with high performance. Thanks

  19. Josh

    I get what you are saying here, and agree with it to a point. You’re saying “Don’t feed me BS in the interview, and present the truth so I’ll know if you are a good fit for the job or not.” I get it, you are looking for the right candidate, and I should be looking for the right job. In an ideal economy, the candidate interviewing for the job would be interviewing the company as much as the company was interviewing them, to make sure they took the job was something that would compliment their skillset. But the reality is when you’re out of work, it’s hard to tell the wife and kids “sorry, we can’t pay the house payment because I’m looking for a job that compliments ME.” I suspect the response would be something along the lines of “I’ll tell you what compliments you… Paying the mortgage!” Just sayin’, this isn’t advice on passing the interview and getting the job, it’s advice on finding the right job.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      That’s absolutely right. I’d go a step further and say my whole blog is advice on finding the right job, rather than getting any job … partly because I’ve had to fire too many people to be able to stomach anything else.

  20. Anonymous

    Thanks for an interesting take on answering this question. Having done some research on the science of interview-process, many of the typical questions (including “weakness”, “where will you be in 5 years”, etc) will reward the best actor of this song and dance. One case study found that out of all the typical questions the only one that showed any value was “what do you know about our company.”

    Having done work in the corporate sector along with psychology counseling, the real weaknesses that will get someone fired are ones that are unknown. A true weakness is one that is in denial and we refuse to admit it. A fake weakness is one we are aware of and most likely will not be a source of incompetence.

  21. Sandee

    I agree with Anonymous. It’s all part of the dance. Why should I be completely honest as an interviewee when the interviewer is not being completely honest by asking a completely stupid question. My advice to my daughter what it’s more about HOW you answer the question than the answer of the question! In this economy, I want to get the job, so I’m not going to sabotage the intereview and waste my time. It’s a tough question, and those who ask it are not very creative. Those that ask it, in my opinion, have not been trained on how to be an effective interviewer. Bottom line, it’s all pat of the dance.

  22. Anonymous

    Also what some may view as a weakness may be others strengths…I don’t think there is a good answer to this question. so my answer to this question would be “Being able to answer this question without sounding like I cannot do the job I am applying for”. I do not think its right to lie, be honest and be yourself. The employer will soon find out themselves what your weaknesses are. Its a leap of faith I don’t think its a fair question like I said NO ONE WANTS TO ADMIT TO ANY WEAKNESS!!!!!

  23. Randy Z

    Asked that question I would either:

    - Say something the interviewer might not recognize so that I could easily segue it to a strength, for example: “I think the Pareto principle is a fantastic tool but in hindsight I wished I applied it better in situations where I had to walk the line between being taking charge and being a therapist.” (And if the interviewer asks me to detail I will… I would spend five minutes detailing a situation where I had to make the tough decision to take charge where I hadn’t been assigned to take charge, or to put myself before others, etc., the theme being that one can’t always control everything and many decisions are statistically-driven…what some people assess as a weakness might not be a weakness at all but just where the chips fell in that particular situation.

    - Admit to a weakness that everyone has, or even that everything I do has weaknesses because to say otherwise would be to proclaim perfection and it’s hard to respect those who think they have it all. “I certainly wish I was a better programmer, a better manager, a more patient person, a less judgmental person, and certainly a better speller…but no one can have it all at the same time and certainly one thing I’d be strongly looking for in this opportunity is the chance to pursue Continuing Education. In fact in preparing for this interview I’d even thought about what I would ask and one question would certainly be “If college was free what courses would you take?”

  24. T

    Would this be a good answer? When starting a new job I tend to be very intimidated by my boss. I freeze up when they come around and get very shy. But once I learn the job I am confident and at ease. For example when I started my first job working with the public I did great my first day. But on my second day the owner stood over me my entire shift. And I made every possible mistake. But once I was comfortable with what I was doing I did great. After about 4 months I was training for management.

  25. Budda

    This was a good article it helped me feel more confident about going into an interview and not nessing up or being nervous.

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