Anyone that has ever endured the joys of a job interview has probably been faced with some variation of the dreaded, “tell me about your strengths and weakness,” question. This question is incredibly obscure and tricky to navigate. Should you answer honestly?
“My strengths are I am the life of the party, I don’t do hard drugs, I’m tall and I have a great sense of humor. My weaknesses are I am always late, have problems with authority, steal office supplies and love to tell dirty jokes in meetings”
Or, should you give an answer that is vague and where your weaknesses are actually strengths in disguise, such as:
“I am a hard worker, a logical and analytic thinker and work well with others. My weaknesses are that sometimes I work too hard, I am a perfectionist, I am always over prepared and I meet every deadline – no matter how impossible it is…”
While the first response is incredibly honest and the employer knows exactly what they are getting – you probably won’t get hired. The second response is obvious bull crap and while you may get hired, you’ve essentially set yourself up to fail. You’ve also shown the hiring personnel that you lack the ability to personally reflect and self-analyze.
Before we dive in and work on how to answer this question, it’s important to understand why the interviewer is asking it. The main reason the hiring manager or team asks this question is to try and determine if you possess qualities that will enable you to succeed. They also want to know what qualities you have that could hinder your job performance. Simple as that.
Now that you know why interviewers ask this question and what they are looking for, you can craft a response tailored to accurately satisfy this question. Let’s look at the strengths first:
When facing questions about your strengths and weaknesses, always keep the job description and duties in mind. Highlight the strengths you have that are suited for that particular job. Try to include language similar to what was in the job description. Here’s an example:
You are applying for a project based position requiring lots of collaboration, meetings, and interaction with other co-workers. You would want your strengths to focus on addressing these areas. Some things you could list are deadline driven, team player, effective communicator, exceptional people skills and problem-solver. You most likely, wouldn’t want to highlight that you work best alone and are an excellent independent worker. The strengths you highlight should match your job description.
For example, if a tech company has on their website the following phrase: “…providing practical and innovative solutions for all of your technology needs…”, you may want to include in your list of strengths: creative, innovative thinking and pragmatic.
The best and most efficient way to attack this is to provide an example that demonstrates multiple strengths. This is the quickest and most concise way to answer this portion of the question without going on and on about yourself. It also communicates that you are precise and are prepared.
Let’s say you are interviewing for a position as a sales manager and you strengths are: you’re great with people, you’re an excellent communicator and you are flexible. You could say:
“My strengths are: I’m great with people, an excellent communicator and I am very flexible. A great example of this is on one occasion in my last position as a sales associate, I was confronted by an angry customer who stormed into the store demanding a full refund on a recent purchase. The customer had purchased merchandise online, did not have a receipt for the item or any proof of purchase. Our store policy was that online purchases were exchange or store credit only.
I was able to calm the customer down and listened intently to his complaint. I determined that the customer had purchased the wrong product. I explained how both products worked and the differences between the two. The customer gladly exchanged the original product for the new, more expensive one and happily paid the difference in price between the two.”
The candidate was able to provide three job-specific strengths and back them up with solid proof. When preparing your answer to this question prior to the interview, come up with two or three examples just in case they ask for more and to give you options, in case one is more apropos than another.
Discussing weaknesses can be a bit more tricky than discussing your strengths. If the interviewer poses the question where they are grouped together such as: “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” A good rule of thumb is to discuss the weaknesses first and end on a positive note. Here are three things to keep in mind when discussing your weaknesses:
Give an answer that legitimately touches on an area where you struggle. Providing an honest answer makes you more authentic, trustworthy and believable. It is also so much easier to discuss something you genuinely connect with versus something you’ve fabricated for the moment.
Pick weaknesses that are relatively small, will not directly affect your job performance, is not contradictory to the organization’s mission and core values and does not reflect poorly on your character and integrity. So you may not want to divulge that you are a compulsive liar, petty thief, use drugs, or cheat on your taxes.
Cast your weakness in a positive light and refrain from going on and on about them. Don’t be overly critical of yourself and avoid self-deprecation. The trick here is striking a balance between being honest and humble while still maintaining your confidence.
The best thing about the “describe your weaknesses,” question is that our deficiencies – no matter what they are – are fixable. This question affords you the opportunity to show that you are self-aware, own your deficiencies and are proactively working to correct them.
Let’s look at the example above. If you are applying for a position as a staff accountant and your weaknesses are public speaking, delegating tasks, and being a bit too straightforward at times, you could frame your response like this:
“One weakness that I have is that I am not fond of speaking in front of large groups. To help me in this area, I make it a priority to be well prepared when I have to speak. I also make sure that I have a good set of talking points with me if I know there is a chance I may be asked to speak, impromptu, in a large-scale meeting. I am also a member of Toastmasters Club so I am confident and communicate well, but I still do feel the butterflies sometimes.
Another one of my weakness is that I tend to do extra work in lieu of delegating it. To help with this, I make it a point to be aware of the strengths and aptitudes of the people who could assist with these tasks. This way I immediately know who should perform the task and am confident that the work will be done well.
I can also be a bit to straightforward at times. To help me catch and stop myself from being overly direct, I have instituted my own personal five minute rule for written communication. So, I’ll craft an email, put it aside for five minutes and then go back and find at least three places where I can soften the language a bit and then I hit send. It takes a few extra minutes but those extra minutes would be spent explaining what I meant or apologizing for being so blunt. I truly enjoy my colleagues and really work to be a pleasant professional.”
When facing the dreaded strengths and weaknesses question, keep in mind the interviewer’s intent. He or she is looking for a good fit. A single answer won’t make or break the interview, unless, of course, you say something particularly egregious. Focus your time and energy on your strengths statement and highlight what you have to offer. You are what they are looking for – and the proof is in your answer to this question.