Skyrocket Your Career! Subscribe to John’s “Got A Minute” video newsletter: SUBSCRIBE

Some of the worst answers I ever heard in candidate interviews came in response to one question.

What are your weaknesses?

own your weaknessesCandidates know, or should know, that this question is coming, just as certain as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West each day.  What amazes me and amuses me is that the certainty of this question does not produce thoughtful answers.

As someone who is blessed with fairly good intuitive skills, this is what I hear and what I sense in candidates when I ask that question:

  • Surprise
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Resentment, and…
  • Some of the best tap dancing I have ever seen

Stop it.  This is really not a hard question.  That fact in and of itself is what has amazed, annoyed and bemused me in my 20+ years of interviewing candidates for clients.  This is a question that a candidate should hit out of the ballpark regardless of what their professional deficits may be.

It is really a question about self awareness “which comes down to a balance of knowing both your strengths and weaknesses, and not trying to hide those,” explained Jake Wobbrock, the founding Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientist of AnswerDash, a contextual knowledge services provider.  Basically, we all have weaknesses.  Not owning those and being able to discuss them in a credibly positive way is a negative for many candidates.

[Tweet “We all have weaknesses. Not owning those and being able to discuss them is a negative.”]

The hiding, the obfuscation, the attempt to change the subject like a bad politician, is where the problem answering that question actually occurs.  Here are some of those problematic answers:

  • I can’t think of any at the moment — One of the worst possible answers, a sure-fire way to get eliminated from a search
  • I work too much.  I need to spend more time with my family — Note to candidates: never ever use that answer if you really want the job.  While there is some hint of awareness in the response, it suggests a desire to avoid a more serious answer
  • I only speak English.  I think learning a foreign language would help me be a better leader — That is a redirection answer.  It is not as bad as the first two because it has some merit, especially in markets/industries where bi-lingual capabilities might actually be of benefit. While that is clever, it does not address the self-awareness issue.  It is an attempt by the candidate to avoid any hint of negativity.  It may not be tap dancing, but when I hear a redirection answer I can sense the candidate is lacing up the shoes

Recruiters know, or they should know, that every candidate has strengths and weaknesses.  Candidates, you cannot avoid that subject with a competent interviewer so be prepared.

Here is an example of one of the better answers I have heard over the past 12 months:

I am very competitive.  I must admit there may be times when I am perhaps too competitive, too eager to take advantage of market opportunities.  At its most extreme, it can lead to unnecessary friction due to my impatience. I am aware of that, and I always make my bosses aware of that so if I override my internal checks there is someone else who can tap me on the shoulder.

This candidate mentioned several other issues such as not always being timely in submitting his expense reports, and being inconsistent in sending notes to colleagues who did a good job on a project.  In the end what made his overall response more credible is that one of his references, the candidate’s former boss, the Chief Operating Officer, said essentially the same thing.  Is this an example of collusion to trip up the recruiter?  No.

[Tweet “Our weaknesses are so often our strengths run amok.”]

That answer has credibility on its face since our weaknesses are so often our strengths run amok.  Smart candidates will ask those providing a reference for their assessment of strengths and weaknesses and incorporate that feedback into their answers.

Taking the time to prepare will result in a more credible interview performance.