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Combating Your Biggest Weakness Interview Question


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Problem

During a recent Interview Best Practices webinar, we asked participants to comment on their biggest interview challenge(s).  We were not too surprised when an overwhelming amount of respondents said that the question “what is your biggest weakness?” is one of their biggest challenges during an interview. Whether it is understanding your weaknesses, or “professional improvement opportunities” as we prefer to label them, or how to tactfully communicate to your potential future Manager in a way that does not disqualify you for the role, this is a particularly tricky question to approach and frame.

Solution

One of the biggest obstacles in answering this question is that you do not want your answer to paint you in a negative light or be viewed as the typical weakness-that’s-really-a-positive like “I work too hard” that Managers see right through!  Here are our top recommendations for navigating this age-old question:

Understand and evaluate your weakness(es)

How can you answer the weakness question if you are not sure what your actual weaknesses are?  Most of us have an idea of areas we struggle in and things we need to improve on, but it is always a good idea to do a quick evaluation.  Here are a few ways to accomplish this:

  1. Performance review.  Most employees only do formal performance reviews once, maybe twice, a year.  Even if this is the case, it is likely that you have a semi-regular cadence with your lead or boss.  During your next evaluation period, performance review, or even peer review, ask your co-worker/team lead/manager for feedback on your performance.  Ask questions such as “What areas could I focus on to bring my performance and contributions to the next level?  What do you think my biggest improvement area is?  What other areas could I focus on?”  This could also happen the next time a deliverable is due!  This is a great opportunity to engage stakeholders and coworkers on any areas of improvement.
  2. Leaving a company.  If your project ended or you are leaving to pursue another opportunity, and are parting ways on a high note, this is a great opportunity to speak with your boss to get their feedback.  Ask questions like “How was my performance?  What areas have I improved the most in? What still needs more attention?”  This is also a great opportunity to request a brief LinkedIn recommendation/reference.   

Once you know your weaknesses, have a plan to mitigate them

What will you do differently?  What action steps will you take to improve?  How often will you perform a self-evaluation or request feedback to see if you are improving?  Make an effort to spend a minimum of two hours a month doing trainings or taking other measures to focus on improving those areas.  For example, if public speaking or delivering presentations is a weakness, join Toastmasters and/or practice presenting in front of a mirror for 15 minutes a week and take 15+ minutes of trainings via YouTube or other channels on public speaking best practices.

View weaknesses as opportunities. No one is perfect

We are all flawed, but when we view our weaknesses as opportunities, that is when true learning and advancement can start to take place.  Work to adjust your mentality to that of a more positive attitude.  Avoid thinking, “gosh I have so many flaws” or “I have lost motivation after my recent review because my boss came down on me hard” and rather say to yourself “this is my chance to prove my worth and become a better, more valuable employee.”  It is hard not to get down on yourself, especially when you are called out for something, but see this as an opportunity to turn things around and make an impact!  Not everyone is given a heads up when things are going wrong until it is sometimes too late, so feel lucky that you actually have a chance and opportunity for improvement. 

Identify and practice response

Once you have identified a few weaknesses/improvement opportunities, write them out, identify strategies to improve, and then practice your response. 

Here are two examples:

Example #1:

  1. Weakness/improvement area: Public speaking.
  2. Strategies for improving: Take public speaking courses, seek advice from strong public speakers, practice, and force yourself to speak publicly as much as possible.
  3. Interview response:  “While it’s improved over the last few years, I still experience some anxiety with public speaking or leading important calls/meetings.  I am sometimes not as concise as I would like to be.  In an effort to appear more confident and concise, I have taken numerous trainings, read books, and have looked for as many opportunities as possible to force myself outside my comfort zone.  I am constantly working to increase my confidence and overall presentation and communication skills.”

Example #2:

  1. Weakness/improvement area: Adjusting communication style when speaking to higher level (executive/VP) audience.
  2. Strategies for improving: Asking questions such as “what is the business impact of what I’m speaking about?” and putting yourself in the audience’s shoes to determine “what are they concerned with?” It is also a great idea to flush out what you want to get across prior, and then do a brief QA to determine what you can cut out/condense 
  3. Interview response:  “I’m still getting comfortable giving executive reports, via email and verbally.  I need to continue to improve on delivering the key highlights that resonate for them as the business leaders and be more succinct, removing the nitty gritty aspects that are not as relevant to them.  I also need to get better at identifying high level data points and building those into my summaries/reports.”

Things to avoid

  1. Not having an answer.  This is simply not an option!  Part of being human is making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes, so every single person has at least one weakness!  When you cannot answer this question, it can show the interviewer that you did not prepare, appear that you think too highly of yourself to have any, or even worse, that you are hiding something! 
  2. Avoid generic answers.  We still hear that interviewees reply with very broad, generic or common (and overplayed responses such as “I’m a perfectionist” or “I’m a hard worker/workaholic.”  We recommend avoiding responses like this.
  3. Avoid weaknesses that are red flags to an employer.  You never want to say things like “I have issues getting to work on time” or “I often have conflict with my coworkers.”  Those are immediate turnoffs!  If you recognize that you exhibit traits like this though as part of your “weakness discovery/identification process” outlined in #1 above, focus on a plan to ensure you are minimizing those things. 

Additional Common Weaknesses

Here are some additional common weaknesses and examples on how to best articulate them during an interview:

  1. Impatience.  “I have a tendency to be impatient, and I have realized that I must have more patience with individuals who may not be as fast-paced.  Not everyone works at the same pace and team members may have different goals and objectives.  I have found that if I understand what is important to my teammates, and offer to assist with anything that’s slowing them down, I can help move the project along instead of being upset that we’re behind schedule.”
  2. Communication skills.  Many items fall under this category.  Examples include shyness when joining a new team, speaking up for yourself, speaking in tangents, grammar, and public speaking mentioned above.  Here are some additional example responses if communication is one of your biggest areas of improvement:
    1. “Public speaking has always been an issue for me, especially meetings with high level stakeholders/VPs.  I have since joined Toastmasters and attend their monthly meetings.  This has greatly aided in my overall confidence and ability to speak to people of all different backgrounds and levels.”
    2. “I sometimes find it difficult to get acclimated with a new team, so I have implemented a practice where I ask my new teammates three questions about themselves to break the ice and start building rapport.”
  3. Oversensitivity or difficulty taking criticism.  “I used to get so down on myself when a coworker or manager would tell me something I was doing was wrong, or suggest a better way of doing it, until I realized that they were only trying to help me get better.  Now I view constructive criticism as avenues to improvement.  That simple mind shift has greatly aided me in being a better performer and focusing on what I can control.”
  4. Confrontation avoider.  “I tend to avoid conflict because I previously had a bad experience with a coworker where he belittled me in front of our entire team.  Turns out it was a miscommunication from our manager and neither one of us understood what the other was tasked with completing.  I have come to realize, however, that it is important to face problems head on.  When things are left unresolved, that is when real issues occur.”
  5. Being too technical and unable to relate.  “I love technology, but I have received feedback that I often speak above my coworkers head.  I do not do it on purpose, I am just so caught up in the details that I sometimes forget my audience.  I now stop multiple times during an explanation to ask probing questions of my audience to ensure we are on the same page.  In some instances, I have even white boarded for them.  These tactics have improved my overall communication and ensured the entire team is on the same page and questions aren’t left unanswered.”
  6. Time management. “Everyone is busy, but because I’m often pulled in multiple directions, I struggle with effective time management.  I have started blocking off time on my calendar to complete urgent tasks.  I also downloaded a scheduling app that has greatly helped.”
Next Steps

Simply put, do not let this question scare you and don’t fear that an honest answer will eliminate you!  At the end of the day, most managers are looking for someone that is honest about their skill set/experience and for someone that understands there are always things to learn and ways to improve.  Follow the recommendations outlined above to:

  1. Identify weaknesses/improvement areas.
  2. Determine actions you could take to improve.
  3. Flush out example responses.
  4. Practice those responses with someone you trust (ideally someone in a hiring/interviewing capacity, such as past or current Manager).
  5. Ask for feedback.


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About the author
MSSQLTips author Cate Murray Cate Murray is responsible for managing the nationally-based talent acquisition strategies of the Apex Systems PMO and Business Analysis Practice.

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