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So, Tell Me About Your Weaknesses

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By Dan King

In a calm, confident manner, Sam replied, "My biggest weakness is that I can become impatient with people who don't set standards as high as mine."

Huh?  I should have let it go, but it was late in the day and I was already on my sixth interview.  Pretending to be puzzled, I looked Sam in the eye and asked, "Are you saying that your biggest weakness is your impatience?  Or is it that you set unrealistic standards.

He glazed over, like a deer in the headlights.  The interview went downhill from there.

Earlier in the day, I had asked the same question of Sara, a seemingly bright young woman who, in a chirpy tone, responded with, "Hmmm, I just can't think of any weaknesses right now."

Too bad.  I had noted three of Sara's weaknesses already.  I guess I knew her better than she knew herself.  I considered giving her my notes and suggesting that she take them with her to her next interview.  They might help.

Sam and Sara (not their real names) exhibited a common interviewing disorder known as "Bionic Syndrome -- B.S. for short -- in which the interviewee feels compelled to dupe the interviewer into believing they've found a completely flawless candidate.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge a weakness during the interview?  Do we really think we should depict ourselves as superheroes?  Is this what interviewers expect?

Of course not!  Interviewers are people too.  And like most people, they know B.S. when they hear it (or should I say, smell it).  The "weakness" question has been around forever and is not likely to go away soon.  It's actually a good question.  How you respond to it says a lot about you -- your preparedness, your honesty, your level of self-awareness.  These qualities are far more important to the interviewer than your actual answer.

How about just telling the truth?  Admit a weakness that you have, and then tell the person what you have done to improve upon it.  How novel is that?

Here's an example.  One of my weaknesses is a tendency to procrastinate.  So in interviews, I disclose this fact, then quickly follow this up with some of the measures I've implemented to help me -- a daily "to-do" list in my palm pilot, priority actions and deadlines to hold me accountable.

If the interviewer sees this as a problem, then "hey, I'm probably not your guy.  "On the other hand, if I get hired anyway, it's better that they know this up front.  Imagine the six-month review:  "Dan, we're concerned about your tendency to procrastinate."  I can say, "You know, you're absolutely right.  Remember when we talked about that in the interview.  What could I do to improve?"

When describing a weakness, don't disclose something that is a required skill for the job.  Stick to a personal characteristic that impacts all areas of your life -- personal, home and work.  If you don't think you have any weaknesses, ask your family.  They'll give you plenty from which to choose.  If your family is like mine, it won't even matter what you ask -- you could request feedback about your strengths and still end up with a list of your flaws.  "I don't know what you're good at, Dan, but you sure do stink at this..."

Sometimes your weakness, when applied to a different situation, can be a strength, but be careful here.  Trying to depict a strength as a weakness is classic B.S. behavior.  I once heard an interviewee say, "My weakness is that I'm a perfectionist."  I followed up with: "How has that been a problem in your previous jobs?"

Still, you may be able to identify a possible weakness by listening closely to the traits for which people often compliment you.  Maybe you're someone who garners frequent praise for your personal approach, sensitivity and genuine concern for other people.  "Gee, thanks," you say.

Then other times the feedback is, "You take things too personally, you're too sensitive and you spend too much time worrying about everyone else.  Just worry about yourself, okay?"  Humbly, you whisper "okay, I'll try."

So what's the difference?  You're the same person with the same personal style.  It's the situation that changed.  Be smart enough to recognize when your personal style is perceived as a strength and when it, frankly, just gets in the way, and adjust accordingly.

If you're someone who begets kudos for being organized, who can be counted on to get things done, congratulations.  That's terrific feedback.  But you can easily be criticized for being too rigid and inflexible, resistant to change or maybe a little, shall we say, anal-retentive!

The best that any of us can do is to acknowledge our weaknesses, know our limitations, and develop appropriate behaviors to compensate for them.  Hiring managers hire who they like -- and who they like is not always the perfect candidate -- it's the one who develops the best personal chemistry with the interviewer.  B.S. doesn't build chemistry.  Being yourself does -- in spite of your flaws.  Just ask your family!

2003, Career Planning and Management, Inc., Boston, MA.  All rights reserved.


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