“My biggest weakness is that I care too much. I often find myself working long hours to deliver the best quality product.”
“Really? Because it sounds like your biggest weakness is being an ass kisser.”
“My biggest weakness is that I’m not a very good cook.”
“You realize you’re interviewing for an engineering position right? I’m making a mental note that your real weakness is self-delusion.”
It’s the trademark interview question. And no matter how much we dress it up, it’s still the same basic question.
“If I called your last manager, what would she say are your top development areas?”
“If I talked to your biggest critic, what would he say are the main areas that you need to work on? Or that you can further develop?”
“What areas do you want to focus on strengthening this year?”
“What do you consider to be your main weaknesses?”
And there’s no shortage of poor advice on how to handle it. Suggestions of a poorly disguised strength (like dedication) or some unrelated weakness (like cooking) aren’t doing anyone any favors.
But it doesn’t have to be a difficult question. In fact, if handled well it’s a question to look forward to.
You just need to know what the interviewer’s looking for. And here’s a hint, it’s not your weaknesses.
We Hire People for their Strengths
“The executive who is concerned with what a man cannot do rather than with what he can do, and who therefore tries to avoid weakness rather than make strength effective is a weak man himself.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
I managed a brilliant engineer. Best software programmer I’ve ever worked with. And he came with communication skills that many would consider a hard weakness. So was he a poor employee? Should we have focused on those communication skills and removed that weakness?
The question’s ridiculous. There’s a lot of people out there who can get along with others. Truly exceptional software designers are much less common. His career path may never lead to management, but if he’s okay with that, there’s no reason to let this weakness limit his effectiveness. The company moves forward by maximizing his skills in the area of his strength.
I have another engineer whose strengths lie in project management and planning. She keeps the many moving pieces going and sees approaching risks with the clarity of an oracle. She’ll never be a technical genius and doesn’t want to be. But that isn’t necessary for her to deliver significant value as a program manager.
Consider those you’ve worked with that are truly influential. Those employees’ whose work leads to breakthroughs and major advances. Few of them are devoid of any weaknesses. They just work within an environment that best leverages their areas of strength.
Anyone can create a slew of generic positions and fill them with the most well-rounded candidates. This path leads to conformity. And then mediocrity.
When we hire for non-objectionable, that’s exactly what we get.
We need to hire the strongest candidate, not the least weak. We’re looking for someone who can make a world-class impact within a specific area, not be average across the board. It’s the manager’s job to find that specific strength and design the job to best leverage it.
Then why do interviewers even ask about weaknesses? Surprise! They’re not. Interviewing managers aren’t interested in your weaknesses. They care about your introspection. They care about your ability to recognize your limitations, take feedback, and grow.
Asking about your weaknesses is just a camouflaged method at uncovering these areas.
Will You Grow?
“It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” – Roy T. Bennett
The real question is about introspection. Are you able to do an honest review of yourself and pinpoint areas that need some focus? Interviewers don’t want to hire someone who can’t recognize their own shortcomings. That means you can’t plan for them. And they’ll always be a liability.
A candidate who doesn’t acknowledge any weaknesses presents himself as a final product. He doesn’t recognize areas where he wants to improve. So today’s version will likely be similar to next year’s employee. And his performance isn’t likely to see dramatic improvements.
And maybe this is fine. But today’s jobs may be very different in five or ten years. And if I’m hiring someone, I’m hoping they’ll be with the company for the rest of their career. I’d much rather hire someone who’s going to grow and adapt as the company changes than someone who’ll cling to today’s role.
A lack of weakness is indicative of someone who’s ignorant of their growth opportunities. And someone who will resist future changes.
So the specific weakness that you talk about isn’t important. It’s only important to recognize that you have areas you’re working to improve.
Be genuine. Show that you’ve assessed your skills and considered which areas are limiting your impact. And be ready to talk about the different things you’re doing to improve in this area.
When you can show an interviewer that you’re actively pursuing opportunities to grow and further develop, it’s a significant advantage over your competition.
Can you Deal with Criticism?
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” – John Keats, Letters of John Keats
We’ll all be faced with criticism and constructive feedback throughout our careers. And let’s be honest, it’s never a pleasant experience.
We want to work with people who are equipped to accept that criticism without becoming defensive. We want employees that can process this feedback with a level of objectivity and see if there’s opportunity for improvement.
So an interviewer wants to see that you’re open to this feedback. That you’ve received it in the past and taken it to heart. They’ll look for clues that you’ve considered different perspectives and leveraged them in your self-assessments.
So when you’re highlighting development areas, show how you’ve taken others’ feedback to heart. Show that you’ve actively sought feedback from others to gain the benefit of objective viewpoints.
And it helps the manager realize you’ll be open to her own advice in the future. Because no one wants to deal with someone who won’t listen to their feedback.
Will You Recognize an Issue? Will You Ask for Help?
“If you need help, bark like a dog.” – Gendry.
“That’s stupid. If I need help I’ll shout help.” – Arya
– George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire #2)
No one comes into a job and is able to excel in every part. If they do, they’re falling far short of their potential. Shame on their manager for not asking more of them.
More likely, people will hit roadblocks and have issues. And then everyone will struggle. The question that an interviewer wants to know is, how long will you struggle?
Employees who don’t acknowledge weaknesses often won’t acknowledge a problem or ask for help. And when people needlessly struggle, we’re inefficiently using the resources available to us.
Be wary of anyone who doesn’t recognize the need to ask for help. We need to trust that people will recognize these limitations and adjust for them.
If someone doesn’t believe they have any weaknesses, will they acknowledge when there’s a fire they can’t handle? Or will I only find out about it after the project’s been burned to the ground?
So when you’re discussing your development actions, recognize that there’s many others out there interested in helping. We often think it’s admirable to bear this burden ourself, but it’s much more impressive to see how you’re leveraging all of the resources around you.
Will You be Accountable?
“People who can’t be questioned often end up doing questionable things.” – John Acuff, Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck
Someone who doesn’t recognize their own development areas is someone who doesn’t fully accept responsibility for their actions.
If you have no weaknesses, then either you’re always successful or when things don’t go as planned, you’re content to place the blame elsewhere.
And while there’s always some level of external factors which influence the final outcome, there’s also always something we could have done differently.
Interviewers want to hire the person who asks, “what could I have done differently? What will I do better next time?”
So show them that you’ve taken the time to reflect and consider your own improvements. That following a disappointment you looked inward instead of outward. It builds confidence that you’ll hold yourself accountable in the future.
And if you’re holding yourself accountable, the manager knows that’s one less thing she has to worry about.
Every Question is an Opportunity
“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” – Warren Buffet
Most interviewing advice treats the topic of weaknesses as a liability to be minimized at all costs. They tell you to give a trivial weakness or a tongue-in-cheek strength. All designed to limit your personal exposure. Well-meaning perhaps, but it promotes a fearful mindset. It promotes loss aversion over maximizing gain.
In this mentality, you’re battling against an interviewer who is looking to catch you saying some weakness. As if the manager will stand up and triumphantly yell, “I knew it! You have a weakness! I knew you’d slip up and admit it sooner or later!”
In the very unlikely scenario where this happens, count yourself lucky that you didn’t get that job and have to work with this poor excuse for a manager. The much more probabilistic scenario is that the manager is looking to understand your growth opportunities.
Weakness topics shouldn’t be a risk to be mitigated. As Warren Buffet would say, that’s indicative of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
We should seize this as the opportunity it is. Use this time to demonstrate introspection. Show that you’re looking to grow. Demonstrate that you take criticism well and are accountable for your work.
An interviewer won’t be scared off by a recognized weakness. Because it’s only a weakness if you’re not working to improve it.
Embrace Your Weaknesses
Our weaknesses make us human. And people want to make a human connection.
So be genuine. People want to see that you’re self-aware and willing to take a hard look at yourself.
And discuss your proactive efforts to improve. This is the best way to turn a potential negative into a positive.
If you can cover these areas, then this becomes an interview question to look forward to.
Example: Providing Feedback
I’d like to work on better tailoring my feedback style to different situations. Some of my peers recently let me know that I have a tendency to be very direct when I’m giving them feedback. And with some people and situations this works well, but with others it’s caused them to shut down and become defensive. Which isn’t helping them understand my perspective or suggestions. So I’m trying to be more diplomatic and tactful. I ask more questions before just giving my opinion. I try to make sure that I fully understand the other person’s views. Then I take a couple moments to consider how my feedback will come across. With a better understanding of their position and taking a moment to think it over, I can craft a more diplomatic message. One that shows I understand the quality work that they’ve put in but have some additional suggestions. This is still a focus area for me, but it’s become much more natural in the past couple months. I’ve noticed that people are more receptive to my feedback and more people are coming to ask for my ideas on different projects.
I have a tendency to overpromise on future commitments or schedules. A lot of times I’ll want to support a new customer demand or assume a success-based schedule. Which then creates a situation where I could end up overextending myself or my team, or disappointing our customers. Earlier this year, we missed an important delivery because I took on too much work and we couldn’t both handle the aggressive schedule while also maintaining our quality standards. And it came down to me accepting more work without understanding the trade-offs. So now I’m much more diligent about considering the impacts before agreeing to take on new work. I try to review the new demand against our resource plan to understand the effects of taking it on. I also make sure I review the new work with those who will actually be performing it. Which they appreciate and I gain a much better understanding for the real impact. This helps me give people a more realistic delivery date, not simply the one they’re looking for that moment. Which, by and large, I’ve found that people appreciate when I explain it this way. A Customer may want their work done sooner, but they also want to receive a quality product and know that we stand behind our word. I try to explain that I’m reluctant to agree to the new date because we’ve already committed to other demands. And we take those commitments seriously, just as we’ll take this one seriously. So we need to honor our previous commitments before realigning resources to support this new work. And while it’s not universal, most customers do seem to appreciate the honesty. They see that we take pride in meeting our commitments while upholding quality standards. And they gain confidence that we’ll come through for them because we’re not about to make promises we can’t support.
Example: Public Speaking
One of my areas of focus this year is becoming more comfortable in public speaking roles. I get nervous whenever I talk in front of large groups or speak up in a meeting with people I don’t know. I talked to one of my mentors whose struggled in this area and her advice was that she largely got better by just forcing herself into the role. So I joined Toastmasters, read some books on the topic, and then threw myself into different public speaking situations. I’ve volunteered to take on future presentations and run large meetings to practice the different concepts and strategies. Last month, I presented a topic at a company training to become more comfortable in front of a group I’ve never worked with before. I still get nervous, and I don’t know if I’ll ever not be, but I’ve noticed a lot of improvement. So I’m going to keep working at it. And it’s actually something I’m starting to enjoy.