4 Simple Steps to Answering the Weakness Question

A conversation I had with my daughter in the past aroused in me emotions of both concern and relief. Yes, two conflicting emotions, but the feeling that stays with me is the relief.

Relief because she was truthful about her faux pas, her display of bad judgement. All was forgiven, although not forgotten.

"This is what the truth accomplishes," I told her.

This is what you get when you ask your kids to be honest, regardless of the response. But is the truth always the best policy?

That depends.

What Is Your Greatest Weaknesses?

What interviewers get from candidates in response to this interview question aren't always honest answers. Candidates are guarded, weighing every word they say, because they feel one wrong answer can blow the deal.

When I spring the question on my workshop attendees, I often get a moment of silence. Their minds are working like crazy to come up with the correct answer. They think the best answer is one that demonstrates a strength disguised as a weakness.

So they come up with answers like, "I work too hard," or worse yet, "I'm a perfectionist." I tell them these answers rank high on the B.S. scale, at which they laugh. But it's true. These answers are predictable. They're throwaway answers, wasted breath.

Instead, I advise my workshop attendees to follow these simple steps.

1. Keep It Very Short: I can't tell you how many people talk on and on when their answer should be no longer than 20-30 seconds.

2. State a Legitimate Weakness: Interviewers want transparency. They also want to see self-awareness – that you're aware of your mistakes. People who think they're flawless are unable to see their mistakes, learn from them, and correct them.

3. Be Smart, Though: I asked at the beginning if honesty were always the best policy. The real question is, how honest should you be? In other words, don't mention a weakness that is vital to the position at hand.

For example, bringing up your fear of public speaking when you're applying for a training position would be a major problem and probably eliminate you from consideration.

4. Talk About What You're Doing to Address Your Weakness: This is of great interest to the interviewer, and something people tend to leave out of their answers.

Returning to the training position example: If you were to say that you tend to talk too much during your presentations, but that you have learned to ask more questions to generate engagement, that would be an answer that is honest and shows your efforts to correct your weakness.

People Make Mistakes

Smart interviewers understand that candidates make mistakes. No one is flawless. They don't want to hear you dance around this question. It's a waste of their time and just makes you look silly.

Furthermore, interviewers want to hear self-awareness. They want to be sure that you know what your weaknesses are and are doing something to correct them. Self-awareness speaks to your emotional intelligence (EQ), which is necessary if you want to succeed in the workplace.

Lynda Spiegel, a job coach who has interviewed hundreds of candidates, believes transparency is the best policy:

"There's nothing to be gained by candidates trying to bluff their weaknesses. To act as though a strength is a weakness ("I can't seem to turn off my work email when on vacation") is disingenuous, and to claim that there are no weaknesses lacks credibility. The best way for candidates to approach questions about their weaknesses is to acknowledge one or two, explain what they've done to address them, and then move on to their strengths."

The weakness question is one I consider to be ... well, dumb. It lacks creativity and doesn't address the requirements of the position. But it's also a question everyone should be able to answer before they get to the interview.

To Review:

Keep your answer short.

Be honest, but not too honest.

Explain what you've learned from your weakness and the measures you're taking to correct it.

Practice your answer before arriving at the interview.

Back to My Daughter

I appreciated my daughter's transparency and, as a result, I now trust her more than I would have if she hadn't told the truth. In addition, I understand she'll make mistakes in the future.

This is not too different from the reaction an interviewer will have when a job candidate shows transparency. Interviewers trust candidates more when those candidates are honest (to a point).

Bob McIntosh, CPRW, is a career trainer who leads more than 15 job search workshops at an urban career center.