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Job interview obstacles: Overcoming the dreaded weakness question

Imagine yourself in an interview for your dream job. The job you know you've got the skills for; the job you want more than anything.

And the interviewer asks, "So, what are your greatest weaknesses?"

[GULP.]

[Is this a trick question? And how in the world am I supposed to answer it?]

Push the pause button.

It's not a trick question, and your answer could very well get you hired, or turn the interview on its head. Let's take a look at the "why," "how" and the "what" of the job interview weakness question.

Why do companies ask about job interview weakness?

Employers typically ask about job interview weakness for a few reasons. First, they want to ensure that your weakness isn't a skill that is critical to the job, something that they'd need you to master immediately. Secondly, they're evaluating how you handle yourself under pressure, along with how you respond to tough questions. Finally, they want honesty.

"It's not that I want to nitpick or make people feel uncomfortable, but rather I want to see in which areas they feel they need to improve and what they are doing about it. In order to advance professionally, we all need to be able to honestly identify not just our strengths but also our weaknesses and how we can upgrade in these areas," says DeLynn Senna, executive director of North American permanent placement services, Robert Half International. She continues by saying, "I recommend that job candidates be up front during interviews. Don't say you have 'no weaknesses,' or 'work too hard.' Instead, tell hiring managers what you are working on improving and what you've done to build your skills in these areas."

"We advise our candidates to be honest and focus on a weakness that is not one of the top three qualities required for the job," explains Kathy Gans, Senior Vice President, Ajilonn Professional Staffing. "Also, be sure to describe how you've already taken steps and made strides in strengthening this skill, showing your ability and desire to constantly learn and grow."

Preparation is key

The best arsenal to overcome the job interview weakness question is to be prepared: from brainstorming strengths and weaknesses to scripting your answers and knowing the job for which you're applying. Before you even set foot in the interview room, make sure you truly understand the job duties. Research the company, the job and ensure that your strengths match the job description.

Remember to always minimize the weakness itself and accentuate the positive. Select a trait, and come up with a solution to overcome your weakness. Avoid personal traits, focusing more on professional qualities. For example: "I tend to focus more on the 'big picture,' and I have to admit that, at times, I miss some of the small details. However, I always make sure that I have someone on my team who's detail-oriented. I pay attention to how they work, and I try to learn as much as I can from them."

Another example: if you're applying for a sales job, your shortcoming could be "not quick to close." Follow that with a statement about how you truly listen to a customer before providing recommendations or solutions. Emphasize that other salespeople often answer without gauging what is right for the customer, potentially pushing a product that might not fit that customer's needs. You, on the other hand, spend time making sure that you understand a particular customer, thereby making recommendations that will earn trust and may generate repeat sales in the future. The most successful salespeople are great listeners.

How scripting helps

Scripting your answers is a great way to stay focused and accentuate your strengths in an interview. Write a positive statement you can say with confidence. Commit it to memory. For instance, "One of my strengths is my ability to adapt to change. As a customer service manager at my last job, I was in charge of creating a cohesive team amid a challenging work environment. I led by example, listened to my employees, and I was able to develop a positive-thinking, loyal team. As far as weaknesses, I feel that my management skills could be stronger, and I'm constantly working to improve them by attending leadership workshops."

Is your answer verifiable?

Make sure your answer to job interview weakness matches what others will say about you. Talk with your references, and ask them what they view as your weaknesses (and strengths). Listen openly and carefully. Develop a plan to overcome each weakness. "The importance of this question is often not the candidate's answer per se, but whether or not the candidate's references respond in a similar manner. In short, it is a way for employers to assess the candidate's awareness of his or her own strengths and weaknesses," says Yves Lermusi, CEO of Checkster.

Passion is important

F. Mark Gunz, president and CEO of the Olympus Corporation of the Americas, reveals a simple, yet profound, reason why the job interview weakness question is crucial: "I'm concerned about what I can't see on your resume." He continues, relating passion and good leadership skills into the equation, "And I think that when we look at failure - because I think it's important to talk about failed leadership, as well - it more than likely occurred because the individual didn't have enough of a commitment that came through, that people would take the leap of faith and follow. I think fire in the belly is not something that can be overestimated."

A few "do NOTs"

Do NOT say what you think the hiring manager wants you to say. Interviewers are looking for a unique, intriguing answer that's backed with thoughtful consideration. Chances are, they've heard a lot of clichés in the weakness area. Make your answer stand out from the pack.

"A quick deal-killer for me is people who are trying to answer questions the way they think I want them answered. Honesty in the interview is refreshing. I appreciate the applicants who tell the truth without trying to sugarcoat things. I am not as concerned with bad things that have happened in their past as much as how they dealt with those issues. That shows their true character," says Phil Wrzesinski, owner, Toy House and Baby Too.

Do NOT say "My biggest weakness is I am a perfectionist." Imagine yourself as the interviewer, and imagine how many times he or she has had to listen to that mundane (and transparent) answer. Put thought into your response, and work - truly work - on overcoming your weaknesses. Create desirability, and show the interviewer how you can contribute to their company's success.

Variations of the job interview weakness question

"Tell me about a time when you failed," your interviewer asks.

Push the pause button.

Consider the context of this question first. Failure comes in various forms: taking the wrong action, omission, not doing enough to execute desired results, or simply not taking action soon enough. Some failures are big, but most are pretty small. Tell a story that indicates you learned from failure, while also highlighting how you handled any resulting fallout.

For instance, perhaps you failed to trust your intuition and hired the wrong person for a job. Or, maybe you didn't intervene in a situation soon enough. Whatever the failure, make sure to demonstrate that you learned from the mistake.

3 quick tips to overcome job interview weakness and strengthen your future

"You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, where you stand?" ~Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • Take note and be aware of what's holding you back from getting the job you want. If you pay careful attention to your work, trends will likely emerge in relation to your strengths and weaknesses. Once you recognize what's holding you back, you'll be able to start strategizing how to best utilize your strengths to overcome weakness.
  • Find a mentor. As 19th Century U.S. Congressman John C. Crosby once said, "Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction." Surround yourself with great people who expect a lot and think highly of you.
  • Actively pursue opportunities for growth. Books, seminars and continuing education programs are excellent sources that create an effective learning space to overcome weakness.

Now, push the play button.

Imagine yourself in an interview for your dream job. The job you know you've got the skills for; the job you want more than anything. And your thought-provoking, succinct answer to the job interview weakness question may make all the difference in the world.

"Work on the weakness that weakens you, and there is no telling how far you will go."
~John Maxwell, leadership engineer.