Tough Interview Question: What Are Your Weaknesses


Hi, I have gone on a few interviews recently and the same question keeps coming up. I have a hard time answering it because I do not want to cast myself in a negative light. I want the job! The question starts out with “what would your Supervisor say are your strongest qualities?” This question is ok and I can usually go on and on about my positive qualities–hard working, pleasant phone manner, team player etc. Then the interviewer asks “what would your Supervisor say are areas that you need to improve?” I always get tongue-tied and choked up at this question. Truthfully, I can improve my interactions with co-workers by minimizing conflct and not taking things personally, I can stand to gain more self-confidence and be more assertive, I can stop over-analyzing situations and just make a decision. I feel that if I say these things the interview will feel that I can’t get along with others, I have low self-esteem and I can’t make decisions. Who wants to hire someone like this? I feel that spelling out my faults is just giving the interviewer reasons not to hire me. In my last interview, I asked the interviewer if we can come back to this question. As it turned out the conversation took a different direction and we never got back to this question. I felt relieved, but I also felt that by not answering this I could have hurt my chances. Help? What should I say in the next interview that won’t shoot down my chances but can cast me in a positive light and be hireable? Any advice you can give is appreciated. Thank you.


Wary of the Interview


Dear Wary of the Interview:

First, let me say that two-part question used by many interviewers is a weak one because it certainly proves very little about the candidate. There are hundreds of websites that give advice on that type of question, and the advice seems to be about how to manipulate the semi-truth so you sound honest but acceptable, even though you are lying or at least being deceptive by what you’re leaving out.

If a job candidate has a serious problem they certainly aren’t going to be honest: “Well, I tend to steal things, and I gossip and malinger, but I’m working on all of those!” If they have smaller issues, they still aren’t going to be truthful: “My current supervisor says I whine and complain too much. I see that as a positive in many ways, because it means I pay attention to details.”

Many candidates use it as a way to blink their eyes innocently and sound saintly, “I guess my biggest weakness is that I work too hard.”

Or, interviewers who think they are psychologists, try to analyze the answers based on their translations: “She said she was sometimes hyper-critical about her own work. I think that probably means she’s also hyper-critical of the work of others, and maybe even of her boss and maybe of customers and….wow we don’t want a person who yells at people and tells them they’re stupid!”

So, you can see why I don’t like that question, or the match to it about one’s own strengths.

However, if I were going to answer it myself, I think I use the approach of taking the mildest of the weaknesses a supervisor had mentioned to me, or one I think they probably consider to be a weaknness, then I’d say what I’m doing improve in that area. If it was possible to view the weakness this way, I’d point out how there are some elements to it that are part of my strengths, then I’m say how I’m going to increase those elements. I’d have that as a memorized but comfortably presented 30 seconds to one minute response, just in case I was asked.

Another way I might respond to it is to literally quote something from my last performance review, rather than saying what I think my supervior thinks. So, I might say, “My supervisor has never verbally discussed any specific weak areas with me, so hopefully that means my strengths far outweigh any other issues. On my last performance report my supervisor, Marcia Wilson, wrote that I needed to gain more experiences in the sales side of the business. I realized she was correct, so I have already started asking for those opportunities.”

That issue isn’t a weakness but it is quoting something a supervisor said was an area in which an employee needed to be stronger, so that works! Or, “In my last evaluation, my supervisor, Marcia Wilson, said I needed to make sure I showed my willingness to be a team member, instead of working on my own. I know that’s a problem for me, because I get frustrated over the negative attitudes and lack of work focus I sometimes see. But I realized when I got that evaluation that I might be seen as uncaring and unsupportive. I don’t want to be seen that way. So, I’ve worked very hard to find the good things that co-workers are doing and support them in it, while being courteous and friendly the rest of the time, no matter what I might think. I think Marcia has been very pleased with my response about that.”

Oh my! Even reading that makes me ill! But, it would be one way to answer it.

When I’ve been required by the interview form to ask those questions, here’s what I have asked, which does a much better job of getting to the truth, and is unexpected:

I’m going to ask you what your supervisor would consider to be a weakness of yours, but I’m going to do it with a twist: Give me examples of why your supervisor would think that. So, tell me what your supervisor thinks is a weak area of your behavior or performance and what has happened at work that would lead your supervisor to think that?

Then, I do the same thing with the question about strengths.

You may want to consider how you would answer THOSE questions!

Whatever the weak areas are….you know now that you need to do something specific to improve. Just knowing doesn’t help, unless you act specifically to make a difference. And, you ae right, why WOULD someone want to hire a new employe who brings all kinds of problems to the work? Your goal is to get a job, but their goal is to keep you out of the job if you will only create problems for them. See to it that you don’t have to weasel out of a question about your weaknesses. Of course we all have them—but we need to make them so miminal they are far, far outweighed by our strengths.

Best wishes as you move forward in your career.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.