In a previous post, we explored one of the oldest and most common interview questions: the one about your greatest strengths. For all its overuse, it’s still helpful to hear how a candidate perceives himself and how he prefers to work. Most candidates have prepared for the greatest strengths question and feel pretty confident about their response.
It’s the other question that makes them nervous.
Tell me about your greatest weakness. In other words, tell me where you’re vulnerable. Tell me what your boss nagged you about. What your mom nagged you about. What you worry I’ll find out about you eventually. Scary stuff.
No wonder most candidates create a comforting fiction they hope will pass for a real answer. “I care too much.” “I have trouble turning off and going home at night.” “I’m a perfectionist.” Ugh.
But you can’t blame them. How do you give an authentic answer without also taking yourself out of consideration for a job you might really be a great match for? It’s tricky ground to navigate.
Turning Weakness Into Self Awareness
Beware the candidate who says she has no weaknesses, says Paul Falcone, HR consultant and author of 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire. If a candidate simply dodges or refuses to answer, it could indicate a lack of self-awareness and / or a significant barrier to open communication. If a candidate’s ego is so fragile that he’s unable to admit weakness, it could be a challenge for him to take direction or fit into a team.
Most “good” answers to this question, Falcone writes, are a variation on a theme: My greatest weakness is the flip side of my greatest strength. “I hold myself to very high standards, and I can be impatient with people who don’t do the same.” “I’m very independent, which makes me want to figure out things for myself. Sometimes, it would be quicker if I just asked for help.” Good answers, made better when you probe for examples of how these traits played out in the past.
Another authentic answer might talk about a weakness in the context of a lesson learned. If a candidate can talk about how they used to handle situations and how they’ve evolved and learned to do better over time. “I used to think perfecting a report was the only thing that mattered. Then I realized that I was holding up other parts of the project. My manager helped me see that getting it done was almost as important as getting it just right. She’d rather have time to fix mistakes than be stressed about missing deadlines.”
As with any interview question, asking for examples of behavior will help you get past the rehearsed response and get to know more about how the candidate will really react in a given situation. Paul Falcone writes: “The variations are limitless. Candidates have no way of preparing canned responses to behavioral interview questions, and therein lies the true beauty of the behavioral query.”