It's the tried-and-true question every job-seeker tries to avoid answering in job interviews: "What are your biggest weaknesses?"
After all, what job candidate wants to give an employer a reason not to hire them? When you're focused on trying to convince an interviewer that you're right for the job, the last thing you want to do is to tell them all the areas where you need improvement. And as a result, this question can feel like a trap – does the interviewer truly expect you to divulge your weak spots, when the answer could work against you? No wonder job-seekers hate it.
For years now, the common advice about this question has been to answer with a strength disguised as weakness: Say you're a perfectionist, or that you work too hard, or that you have trouble leaving work behind when you go home at night. But unfortunately for job-seekers who try these answers, interviewers are increasingly refusing to accept them. And that's no surprise, since they've become well-known clichés that scream, "I'm giving you a fake answer to avoid an honest response to this question." Savvy interviewers will refuse to accept these disingenuous answers and will push back for a more sincere answer.
So what do you do when faced with an interviewer demanding that you lay bare your weaknesses?
For starters, recognize that it's not a bad thing. In fact, it's in your best interests not to end up in a job that plays to your weaknesses – so it's best to find out now whether your weaker points will be deal breakers in this job. If they are, it's far better to find that out now, rather than fail at this job or get fired from it.
Moreover, candidates who talk with ease about both their strengths and their weaknesses come across as humble, self-aware and comfortable with themselves – qualities most employers are looking for. They also come across as thoughtful partners in the hiring process – and most hiring managers are impressed to see that you're as concerned about making sure that the fit is right as they are.
That means that you should come prepared with an honest assessment of your weak spots. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your professional skills or traits, what would it be?
Once you have that answer, don't stop there. Part two of formulating a strong response to this question is to think about what you're doing to combat those weaknesses. You don't want to just say, for instance, that you're disorganized and leave it at that. But you certainly could say, "A few years ago, I realized that I didn't have organization systems that worked for me, and as a result, I had trouble keeping track of everything I wanted to be juggling. So now I'm vigilant about writing everything down and making to-do lists. I check every morning to make sure that nothing has slipped through the cracks and I know what all my priorities are for the day and the week, as well as longer term. I know I'll have to be a list-maker forever, because without them, my natural state is a less organized one."
In other words, talk about the weakness and talk about how you're controlling it.
No sane hiring manager is going to reject you for admitting that you have some weaknesses, since everyone does (interviewers included). But they'll respect you for talking honestly with them, and you'll benefit from being able to honestly discuss how those weaknesses might or might not impact you in this particular job – and that's information you need to make good job decisions for yourself.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.