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Most people, when interviewing for a job, aren’t especially eager to talk about their weaknesses. How, then, are you supposed to answer the so-standard-it’s-now-a-cliché interview question, “What are your weaknesses?”
After all, we all have tons of weaknesses. Which one are you supposed to tell your interviewer about? And are you just supposed to lay out all the reasons they shouldn’t hire you and wait for the rejection email to arrive? In a situation where you’re hoping to impress, it can feel like an unfair question, or even a trap.
But it’s not an unfair question. It’s actually in your best interests to have an honest conversation with your interviewer about both your strengths and your weaknesses … because if your weaknesses happen to be particularly calamitous for this particular job, it’s better for you to find that out now, before you end up in a job that you’re terrible at or get fired from.
Of course, believing honesty is in your best interests requires you to buy into the idea that interviewing for a job is a two-way street. If you walk into every interview already convinced you want the job, just hoping to convince your interviewer to hire you, you’ll miss out on opportunities to figure out whether this is even a job you’d enjoy or be good at (not to mention, whether you’d want to work for this particular manager and at this particular company). Not being honest drastically increases the likelihood that you’ll find yourself in a job where you feel unhappy or don’t perform well.
Instead, you’ll get far better outcomes for yourself if you use the interview as a chance to figure out whether or not the job is a strong match for you, taking into account what you’re great at and what you’re not-so-great at. You should want to make sure your interviewer is aware of your weaker points and doesn’t think they’ll be big obstacles in the job.
Plus, in addition to helping you screen out positions that are wrong for you, this approach is likely to make you come across as self-aware and comfortable with yourself — both things that are appealing to hiring managers. Presenting yourself as a thoughtful partner in figuring out whether or not this is the right match — as opposed to someone who’s just desperately hoping for a job offer — is tremendously appealing as well. There’s actual data backing this up; studies have found interviewers rate candidates more highly when the candidates seem more concerned with being seen accurately than positively, and when they acknowledge real weaknesses.
So, if you’re convinced, how do you actually answer the question? The best way to prepare is to spend some time thinking seriously about your weaker points as they relate to work. Think: What have you struggled with? What doesn’t come naturally to you? What have managers encouraged you to work on in the past?
That’s part one of your answer. Here’s part two: What are you doing about it? You won’t be able to include that in every case, but ideally you’d talk about what you’ve done to ameliorate the impact of the weakness on your work.
Here are a few examples of what it might sound like:
• “A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of all the tasks I was juggling, I had trouble keeping track of everything I needed to cover. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing has slipped through the cracks and all my priorities are on track. But it’s definitely not a natural strength; my natural state is a less organized one.”
• “I tend to be fairly reserved. I’m more of a listener than a talker. I realized that could come across as not being confident in my work, so I’ve worked to develop my presenting skills and I’ve volunteered to facilitate sessions on X and Y to get more comfortable with speaking up. But compared to many people, I can be on the quieter side.”
• “I’m more of an editor than a writer. I’ve gotten consistently positive feedback from managers about my ability to polish other people’s writing, but that’s a stronger area for me than writing pieces from scratch. I can write from scratch when I need to, but it’s not what I’m best at.”
• “I sometimes get caught up in details and lose the forest for the trees. I’ve learned that I have to be deliberate about building in checkpoints where I’ll step back and look at the whole project and make sure that I haven’t lost sight of what’s most important.”
• “I’m not a numbers person, so anything that’s heavy on numbers — like reconciling accounts — isn’t my forte.”
What you should not say in response to this question is “I’m a perfectionist” or “I work too hard” or “I need to be better at not taking work home with me.” These answers have been so often suggested in job-hunting guides — and so frequently used by candidates trying to avoid talking about real weaknesses — that they’re widely recognized as BS, and you’ll come across as disingenuous if you use them.
One last thing: Keep in mind that this question may not present itself as a straightforward “What are your weaknesses?” Interviewers have realized that candidates see the question as tired and cliché at this point, so you may hear it worded differently. For example, you might hear it phrased as, “What have your previous managers encouraged you to work on improving in?” or “What are you currently working on improving on, and how are you going about it?” or even, “If I called your current manager, what would she tell me have been your biggest challenges?” Be prepared for these versions as well — but know they’re all ultimately getting at the same thing.
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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.