Although often viewed as a bit clichéd, the interview question about your weaknesses comes up time and time again. The question itself may be positioned in a number of ways i.e. what would your Line Manager say is your biggest weakness? What is your biggest career mistake? Tell me about a project or task where something went wrong? But all such questions are designed to try and get you to reveal something about yourself you would otherwise prefer not to.
There are many reasons why this is a popular area to explore. First and foremost it is an opportunity for the interviewer to identify some of the areas that you find more thereby reducing their risk in who they hire. Secondly it also gives the interviewer an insight into your level of self awareness. Someone oblivious to their weaknesses or areas of development will struggle with this question. Further, it also gives an insight into self development. Being able to identify an area of weakness or development and then show a path of improvement will give the interviewer confidence about your ability and potential to grow as an individual over time.
So how might this question best be answered? Taking the self deprecating approach in most situations is unlikely to win the interviewer over but there are a number of ways the answer can be positioned in ensure your deliver a strong answer to what is often a tricky question.
Be authentic – the downside of frequently asked questions is that if you give a stock answer the interviewer will have heard it all before so definitely avoid saying you are a perfectionist or that you work too hard. These types of answers will not engage the interviewer and if you do use them be prepared that experienced interviewers are unlikely to accept these answers and will push back for more. Moreover providing an honest and open opinion of you is an attractive quality to most employers as long it is positioned correctly.
Non essential skills – another option or tactic is to look and understand some of the key attributes of the role and try and focus your weaknesses around something which will have little impact on the role you are trying to secure. That way the interviewer feels you are being open and honest about areas of development but will have minimal concern where it is something that has no impact on the role. i.e. presenting to large groups.
Turning a negative into a positive –In my personal opinion this can be seen as trying to be too clever and as a result insincere. In reality, most experienced interviewers will see straight through it and see it as a non answer – in which case be prepared to answer the question again!
Overcome the potential downside of your biggest strength – strengths in certain personality traits are often accompanied by weaknesses i.e. people with very strong attention to detail may find it difficult to assess the bigger picture. This presents an opportunity when applying for some roles where they are looking for particular types of individuals where you can use this technique. This should only be done where you know the negative has no relevance to the role.
Be specific – this I believe is a great tactic. Rather than admitting a generic weakness try and limit the scope of the weakness by being as specific as possible i.e. talk about how you have any issue presenting to large groups (rather than presenting per se) and then talk about what steps you have taken to improve in that area. By being specific you prevent the interviewer making a sweeping assumption about a whole host of skills attached to that area which could leave them with a very negative view.
Skills you have improved – another option is to paint a picture to the interviewer how you have improved a particular skill or competency. This can be done by discussing your initial level of functioning, discuss the development steps you have taken to improve this area and then reference your current, improved level of capability with a specific example. It is worth noting this strategy may not work if the area you mention is central to the role you are being interviewed for as it may bring your overall capability into question.
Express preferences – a further way of positioning your weaknesses is to contextualise them in terms of your preferences, which allows you to do it without any negative connotations. i.e. Given the choice between A and B, I'd prefer A. This way, you can imply "Don't make me do B as I am not very good at it" without ever expressing a negative. This technique is easy to master with a little practice.
Talk about what you do, not what you are – by focusing on your behaviors rather than your personality traits you are suggesting to the interviewer that your weaknesses are only prevalent in certain circumstances rather than all of the time. This may be in in the form of particular scenarios or isolated situations where certain factors were at play. If you talk about them in the context of tendencies rather than expressing them as the type of person you are you can position them as only being apparent now and then.
Hopefully some of the suggestions above will prove useful in helping you deliver a much stronger and credible response to this frequently asked question. But ultimately it is also about being honest – honest with the interviewer and yourself. There are always inherent risks in portraying yourself as someone you are not and you will be setting yourself up for a fall even if you manage to convince people through the interview process. Equally being too honest about every short coming you think you may have is also not a great idea as I suspect you may find it very difficult to secure another position. No one is perfect but positioning your weaknesses in the right way is a very important aspect of interviewing and is a question that you can prepare for in advance of your interview. There is no single correct answer to these questions, critically it is about making sure you are authentic and that your answer is well matched to the job.