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How to Choose a Weakness that doesn’t Blow your Chance of Getting the Job
So how do you choose a weakness that doesn’t blow your chance of getting the job? That’s a good question, because, quite frankly, even a nicely-packaged answer can still leave the interviewer doubting your fit or ability to perform well in the role.
First up, there are two types of weaknesses from which I would abstain. The first one is emotions. Some people I have interviewed have told me that they get sad and teary quickly, that they have a temper or that they feel really insecure a lot of the time. If this is you, then it is commendable that you possess the self-awareness required to realise that these feelings may be inhibiting you from performing brilliantly in a particular role. I also find it extremely courageous of you to admit that this is the case. Kudos on both fronts.
This said, I still wouldn’t utilise emotions in an interview because they can invoke rather strong pictures in people’s minds. Let me exaggerate this and fire off a harsh question: “Who wants to work with a sook?” If someone said to me that they get sad easily and cry a lot, I immediately imagine all the times I will have to spend calming them down, ensuring that they are okay, instead of focusing on my work. Ugh!
Or take the example of having a temper. Who wants to work with someone who regularly explodes in the work context? My work is stressful enough and my life is complex enough – I don’t need to invite more trouble into the workplace if someone can’t keep their temper in check. In fact, I once worked with such a person. He was a nice enough bloke and – believe me – an absolute superstar in the work that he was doing. But oh my, did he cause a lot of trouble. Like clockwork, he would go off – in person or on the phone – towards colleagues, students and even external people. We needed to do a lot of damage control and his regular outbreaks destroyed a lot of trust in our team. They also caused high-levels of uncertainty and – to a certain degree – insecurity in team members because we never knew how he’d react to certain news or situations. All up, his behaviour burned a lot of our resources in terms of time and energy. In short, if someone told me in an interview that they had a temper they couldn’t really control, I’d run for the hills.
The second type of weakness from which I would abstain is a no-brainer: any of the selection criteria outlined in the job description. Use them as a strength but never as a weakness. Simple enough. If the company seeks someone with time management skills, then telling the interviewer that the one area you’re really not good at is managing your time is – well – just plain dumb. Don’t do it.
Instead, I recommend you pick something harmless, something that can be turned into a strength quickly and something that let’s you show off your pro-activity in improving your skill base or behaviour. Whilst, traditionally, a lot of people use a hidden strength to answer the weakness question, this is a bit of a plump approach, in my opinion. And even though using the two-sides-of-the-coin-approach along the lines of “my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness” can work quite well, there is a more elegant way that let’s you show off on different levels. Let’s have a look at it.
The Self-Awareness & Growth Mindset Answer
My favourite way of answering weakness questions should they arise in an interview (I am still hoping that, instead of asking age-old non-descript questions like this, the skilled interviewer will simply engage you in a conversation to get all the answers they need, but experience tells me that – unfortunately – strengths and weaknesses are still part of the agenda in many cases) is one that highlights your level of self-awareness as well as the fact that you’re operating with a growth mindset.
Let me give you an example before deconstructing it in order to fully understand what it’s all about. Imagine you’re sitting in an interview and are asked the following question: “So, (insert your name here), I’ve got a pretty good idea about your experience and skill set, but let me ask you, what would you consider to be your biggest weakness?”
In such a case you might provide an answer along the following lines: “Great question. Well, the one thing I am currently working on is to learn saying no without saying no. You’ve got to understand that I love helping people wherever I can because I enjoy seeing others grow and excel. However, I’ve noticed that sometimes helping someone and, for instance, doing something for them is actually taking a learning opportunity away from them. Additionally, it can impact my own work schedule. This is why I enrolled in an assertive communication course on Coursera to identify ways in which I can still be of assistance whilst protecting my time and energy and providing a different avenue for others to grow. I can’t wait to implement what I’ve learned.”
A bit of a mouthful, I admit, but let’s roll with it.
So what happened here?
First up, this answer contains three components: the area for improvement (i.e. the gap), the positive and negative consequences of this gap as well as the implemented action steps to move you from your current level of behaviour/skill towards your target level. The first two aspects indicate a high level of self-awareness on your part. You not only know what it is that you need to address, but are also aware of why it is important that you better yourself in this particular area. The third aspect indicates pro-activity and a growth mindset. By presenting a strategy for improving your skills base/changing your behaviour you’re signalling that you’re willing to go the extra mile to improve professionally, which – quite obviously – will not only benefit you but also the company for which you’re working.
I’ve seen a lot of candidates getting stuck on the second and third points. Whilst they might be able to identify an area in which they could do better, they sometimes don’t understand why it is important that this area be addressed. This can be a bit of a problem, because a) it sounds as if they’ve just made up something in order to fill the conversational void and b) they subsequently are not able to pinpoint how improving this particular skill/behaviour would improve their own performance and that of the company. Thus, once you’ve identified your weakness, I recommend asking yourself: “So what?” or “Why is this important?” or “What do I gain and what does the company gain if I address this skills/behavioural gap?”
This, obviously, presupposes a willingness to change. I’ve once interviewed a candidate who stated his temper as his weakness and who was able to tell me how this could be a problem in a work context. Upon questioning him how he was going to address this, however, he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t care much for addressing it at all. In summary, he knew his temper was a problem and that it could destroy trust and goodwill but he didn’t give a damn about the consequences. Wow!
Others just gave me blank stares when asked how they intended to proceed with closing their skills/behaviour gap. Also wow. No need to tell you that both received some feedback on this.
This is why it is important to identify strategies for closing the gap (and then, of course, follow through with them). You could brainstorm ideas, asking yourself: “What can I do to improve in this area?” Maybe you know someone who is really good at it and have the opportunity to quiz them about how they do it, or you could watch some videos, read a book, or enrol in a course. There is a lot you can do as long as you are doing something.
There are a couple more things to this answer. First up, I refrained from using the word “weakness” and replaced it with “something I am currently working on”. Here is the reason. A weakness can be perceived as part of someone’s identity. Often people will say: “I am not good at…” or “My weakness is…” which makes it appear as if this trait/behaviour is static and, as a fixed trait, can’t be changed. It’s just there and that’s the way it is.
By using the construct “Something I am currently working on is…” you’re turning this fixed thing into a process. As we know, a process is ongoing, dynamic and open for improvement. So all of a sudden, we’re not talking about your identity any longer but about an activity in which you engage; like a skill that you’re learning. And we all know that a skill requires time and effort in order to be perfected.
On the other hand, if this question was about your strength and not your weakness, I would keep it as part of your identity, along the lines of: “I am really good at time management. Let me give you an example.” And then, obviously, follow up with an example that clearly indicates that you’ve got the skill.
Secondly, the answer is relatively narrowly framed. I’ve come across a lot of candidates who made broad statements when confronted with the weakness question. This could sound something like this: “I am not very good at communication.” Whoa! That’s a pretty big, heavyweight statement.
Whilst I’d be happy to use the opposite, i.e. “I am very good at communication”, plus example in the context of a strength, it is completely counter-productive in the context of a weakness and probably not even true. Are you bad at communication all of the time, with everyone and in every context? Chances are that this is not the case.
Maybe you are really good at talking to co-workers but struggle to pitch to higher-level executives. And maybe you’re very good at communicating with higher-level executives when you have an informal chat with them but struggle in formal presentations. And maybe it’s not even that you are bad at communicating with higher-level executives in formal presentations but that you sometimes struggle to reiterate your points in a different way if there seems to be some misunderstanding or confusion in the room.
So instead of pitching it as something you’re very bad at, first think about the specific context, in which you wish you did this skill or behaviour better. Ask yourself: “What, specifically, is it that I need to work on? What is the context? Who are the people around me in this context?” All the ‘when, who, what, why’ (and so on) questions will be your friend when pinpointing your specific area for improvement.
Taking this into consideration, a revised version could look like this: “One thing I am currently working on is to get across my points even better when formally presenting to higher-level executives. I’ve noticed that different people seem to process information differently, which can lead to miscommunication and confusion. Hence, I’ve started researching techniques that allow me to pitch my ideas in different ways so that everyone in the room is clear on what I am talking about. In fact, I’ve just read a book about learning styles, in which I got some excellent ideas for presenting to people with different styles compared to mine. I’ve already incorporated some of these techniques into my next presentation and am hoping to increase clarity and consent whilst decreasing confusion.”
You may have noticed that I sneakily included the construct ‘even better’ in the above answers, obviously presupposing that you’re already quite decent at it. Further, I didn’t include an end result (along the lines of: “I’ve already done it and it worked a treat.”) to ensure that it still is an area for improvement as opposed to a gap you’ve already closed.
Of course and as usual, the key is to be prepared. Annoying question or not, if you’re asked about your biggest weakness, you’re better off using it to your advantage instead of rambling on about emotions, accidentally picking something from the selection criteria, presenting your area for improvement as a fixed trait/behaviour or even give one of the ‘we might just as well end the interview now’ answers (i.e. “I don’t have a weakness” – believe me, I’ve heard that more than once).
If you can identify your area for improvement, the reasons why it is important for you to improve in that area as well as present a strategy for closing the gap, you’re doing a terrific job. And, incidentally, you’ve also countered one so-called weakness with three hidden strengths: self-awareness, pro-activity and a growth mindset.