One of the things I was most surprised by when I got into the jobs business over a decade ago was the prevalence and practice of age discrimination in hiring right here in the USA. Oh, sure... we're not like some overseas markets where job ads explicitly demand youth, or a particular gender, or beauty(!), in the applicant, but there it is...
Workshop participants and coaching clients often ask how to handle the question, “What are your weaknesses?” After all, they know it will be asked at some point.
This question has become such a staple for interviewers that it continues to spark discomfort, or even fear, in job hunters at all levels. Not surprisingly, the simple fact that the question is expected leads people to prepare responses that are more evasive than introspective. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop interviewers from asking the question.
Consider the typical interview scenario:
Despite this, it is amazing how many otherwise smart interviewers still think it’s a good idea to pursue this line of questioning. It’s even more amazing to hear how many people respond by describing themselves as “perfectionists.”
A quick glance at the current state of our world is enough to realize that there aren’t nearly as many perfectionists as people who claim to be. Even if it happens to be true in your case, do not, under any circumstances, describe yourself as a perfectionist – unless you are trying to turn the interviewer off completely.
So, what’s the solution? While it might seem odd to start with what interviewers can do to ask more thought-provoking questions, let’s start there anyway. It actually reveals a more effective way for candidates to respond – no matter how the question is phrased.
A more effective approach
The spirit of the weakness question is a good one in the sense that every one of us has room for improvement. Unfortunately, if we were all completely candid about the areas in which we need improvement, most of us probably wouldn’t have jobs. There’s something about saying a weakness out loud that makes it seem worse than it actually is.
On the other hand, canned answers like “perfectionism” and “chocolate” don’t do much to further the conversation either. For these reasons, I use a different approach.
As an interviewer, rather than asking about weaknesses, I ask the following question:
“Someone who doesn’t know you well doesn’t like you. What are five adjectives he or she might use to describe you?”
This question works for two primary reasons. First, it is a universal human phenomenon that there will always be people who don’t know us well and, for whatever reason, don’t particularly like us. Second, you can’t fake your way through this question. As it happens, people are often so caught off-guard by the question that they find themselves compelled to answer candidly. For example, on two occasions, I had candidates – one man and one woman – describe themselves as “mean-spirited.” The more I probed, the more I realized it was probably an accurate self-assessment.
Apart from this scenario, there are very few responses that would ultimately contribute to a candidate being eliminated because the five adjectives are only part of the answer. The only other noteworthy example would be the candidates who have so little self-awareness that they can’t come up with a single adjective others might use to describe them. In most cases though, the real insight comes not from the five adjectives, but from the follow up question:
“Now, let’s imagine you are on a team with a new person at the company. You notice there’s some tension between the two of you. You also realize that this person would probably describe you as …[insert their list of 5 adjectives]. How would you handle the situation?”
From a candidate’s perspective, the real objective is to provide a meaningful and believable area of improvement.
Using this approach as a candidate
When you hear the weakness question – and you will – answer the adjective and follow-up questions above instead. To show how this works, I’ll demonstrate the technique using a few of the adjectives people who don’t know me well might use to describe me. The important point here is to take this one step further and say what you are doing to improve. For example, I would say:
“Sometimes people who don’t know me particularly well get the wrong impression and see me as intense, angry and sometimes even aloof. Even though people who know me well would never use those words to describe me, I know I can come across that way at times. For this reason, I am taking steps to be seen as more kind and approachable – like being the person who smiles and says hello to strangers.”
At that point, I would smile at the interviewer and say:
“As someone who grew up in downtown Chicago, smiling at complete strangers isn’t something I do naturally, but I’m working on it.”
This approach works well for a few important reasons. First, every word of it is true. Second, it communicates honesty, self-awareness and a commitment to self-improvement. Better still, it often has the unintended consequence of creating a connection with the interviewer.
On more than a few occasions, I’ve had interviewers look at me with a somewhat surprised expression and say, “I have the exact same experience. People always tell me I look angry – even when I’m not.” Another woman smiled and said, “My husband is the same way.” In each case, we connected in the moment as fellow human beings. That, by the way, is something that would be highly improbable the way most people approach the weakness question. Somehow, I can’t picture an interviewer hearing about your perfectionist tendencies and excitedly exclaiming, “Me too!”
Keep this in mind the next time you are asked about your weaknesses. It’s a great way to be honest and compelling without damning yourself to a life of unemployment.