All entries for Monday 27 August 2012

August 27, 2012

What are your weaknesses? The killer interview question…

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Mr Egg

It doesn't matter whether you're a seasoned pro or completely green, there are some interview questions that just invite dread. There's one that really seems to get pulses racing: "what are your weaknesses?" And I can see why. It seems to undermine your whole interview strategy; why would you give the recruiter reasons to reject you? Well the key here is to understand the psychology behind the question.

Why recruiters ask this question

Asking about your weaknesses – or variants on the theme – is not part of a malign plot to trip you up or make you stressed (though it can feel like it!). Interviewers often ask this question to gauge the following:

  • How well you respond to pressure. Can you provide a thoughtful, considered answer without crumbling? Are you able to maintain your composure?
  • Honesty and integrity. All of us have 'weak spots' but a strong candidate will take ownership of their weaknesses, showing both insight and self awarenes.
  • Evidence of personal growth. Being able to identify your weaknesses and take corrective action.

Don't play the 'perfectionist' card

Although the tide has started to turn, you'll still find many careers sites recommending the 'weakness into a strength' approach. I think recruiters are probably clued up enough to see beyond such a transparent – and cliched – strategy, and I can't help feeling this is guaranteed to provoke irritation. Just play out this scenario:

Interviewer: "Tell me about your weaknesses?"

You: "Well, I consider myself to be a perfectionist and I set myself extremely high standards. This makes it hard for me to delegate work and I sometimes tend to obsess over the smallest detail. However, I do recognise this can be a problem and I am trying to find a good balance between managing the project and seeking colleagues input and feedback"

What you hope the interviewer hears:

  • I am a high performing employee
  • I take the initiative
  • I see projects through to completion
  • I have no 'real' weaknesses

What they're really thinking:

  • I'm not sure you're a team player
  • You could be a bit high maintenance
  • You're not willing to learn
  • You're being disingenuous and lack self-awareness

Don't talk yourself out of a job

First of all, you need to give serious consideration to your weak points. And I do mean before the interview. You don't want to be caught on the back foot, trying to find an answer to a question that can make or break your interview. Think about the job spec and the role in general: if you proclaim a discomfort with public speaking, only to find it's an career essential, than don't be surprised if the interview ends fairly swiftly!

Try to find something that you've struggled with in the past, but are now trying to overcome. You don't want to be too candid and start checking off weaknesses like a shopping list, so it's best to identify one particular area and share your 'journey' through a brief narrative. I often pose this question in mock interviews and rather liked this answer:

"I'm not naturally the most organised person and in the past this affected my ability to meet multiple deadlines. This was certainly the case during my A levels, and I used to make lists and keep a day planner. When I started at Warwick I bought a smartphone and I use the alerts and apps to good effect. I find it much easier to manage my academic and extra curricular commitments and haven't missed a single deadline. I'm confident that I can now manage this weakness and feel able to meet the challenges of a professional workplace"

You may be wondering whether this was such a smart move. Who wants to admit they're disorganised? Well, as our student recognised there are some skills or traits that don't come naturally. Recruiters are expecting you to admit to some personal or professional weakness - they'll be far more surprised if you don't. Networking is my achilles heel - I really have to work at it. Can I say honestly that I've conquered my natural aversion to networking? No, but I have learnt some pretty useful techniques over the years and can – if needed – work a room. Like the student above, I've found ways to manage my weaknesses, so the impact on my professional life is negligible. Take a similar approach with an interviewer and you won't go far wrong.

Is there a 'right' answer?

There are good answers, bad answers and some downright ugly ones that will see you consigned to the 'reject' pile with lightning speed. Don't, for example, reply 'chocolate' hoping to find the recruiter's funny bone. There's a time for offbeat humour - the interview isn't it. So, is there a definitive, industry standard, universally accepted 'right' answer? No. This is one you have to work out for yourself, but get it right and you'll move just a little closer to that job offer.

August 2012

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