By Bob King, Director of Employment Services, Memorial Assistance Ministries
You know the question is coming.
"Bob, what do you think is your greatest weakness?"
We counsel clients all the time to be ready for this question, but it's amazing how often a job-seeker's first inclination is to answer the question along one of these lines:
- "I'm such a perfectionist."
- "I'm too critical of myself."
- "I work too hard."
- "I expect too much from others."
Somewhere in the past, somebody came up with the bright idea that the right way to answer the what-is-your-greatest-weakness question is by giving a strength and try to pass it off as a weakness for the purpose of this question.
Imagine this sequence of questions and answers:
Q: Why do you think you would be an asset to our organization?
A: Sir, I will work relentlessly to be as productive as I can be, and I will strive to attain perfection in all that I do.
Q: What do you consider to be your biggest weaknesses?
A: Well sir, I would have to say that sometimes I work too hard and wear myself out. And my perfectionism means I am too hard on myself.
This kind of answer to the what-is-your-greatest-weakness question indicates that you don't understand what the question is all about. Worse yet, the "I work too hard and I am such a perfectionist" answer is considered my most employers to be pure b.s. (that's bovine scatology, by the way).
The purpose of the question is to see if you are aware of your limitations, and what you are doing to work around them and perhaps overcome them. Everyone has limitations. Even Superman loses his mojo in the presence of kryptonite. Why should you be any different. The reality is that no employer is looking for Mr. or Ms. Perfect. They have learned through experience that no such person exists.
Therefore, giving the "I am too perfect" answer is both dishonest and not helpful. The only reason that it is not an automatic disqualifier is that so many people give it. If all were disqualified, there might not be anyone out there to hire.
Another weak strategy is to talk about something completely meaningless to the job. Below we see that President Obama fell into this trap when Katie Couric asked him the question in 2008.
Well, he got the job anyway ...... but most of us would not get away with giving such an impertinent answer.
If you spend a little time preparing for this question, you can relish it and PRAY they ask it. Doing a great job with this question can really impress the employer with your honesty, self-awareness, and maturity. Here's how you can really stand out with the answer to this question:
1. Select a real weakness, but not a disqualifying one. For example, if you want to be an administrative assistant, you can't be "disorganized". If you want to be an accountant, you can't be "quantitatively challenged". If you want to be a customer service professional, you can't be "impatient".
You have to be smart about the weakness you give. It can either be something that is already obvious from your resume, or something that is not super-critical to success in the job. An entry level person get away with having little experience -- it's evident from the resume anyway. An experienced person transitioning into a new field can get away with having the wrong degree (or no degree) if his/her experience is impressive. An executive can get away with not being great on details (if they are being hired to see the big picture and be a strategist). A salesman with a lot of personality and great verbal skills can survive admitting that s/he isn't a quant jock. Choose something real, that has some impact on your job, but is still one that you believe is not of critical importance in the job you seek.
2. Show that you have a "work-around plan" for dealing with your weakness. A commitment to teamwork covers a multitude of sins. "I like to work closely with others in delivering value to the customer. My creativity paired with a strongly quantitative colleague will make for a great team." Another work-around plan is to emphasize that you are highly coachable. "I like to get feedback from my supervisor and from my colleagues, and I consider myself very adaptable. Once I understand what is expected, I will get it done."
3. Show that you are doing something to improve. How to overcome a weakness? By taking a class, by studying online, by getting experience through volunteering. "My biggest weakness is that my Spanish language proficiency isn't what it needs to be. I am about 30% proficient and my goal is to be 50% by the end of the year. I spend two weeks every summer in Mexico in a total immersion program, and I engage my Spanish speaking clients in Spanish every chance I get."
Remember, the purpose of the what's-your-biggest-weakness question isn't to expose that you are imperfect. We are all imperfect. The purpose of the question is to show that you are self-aware, and that you know how not to let it impair your job performance.