It’s the dreaded interview question. The one that makes your hands get clammy and your throat close up. None of us ever want to answer it. Of course not, because an interview is about showing our perfect professional selves, right? It’s about being absolutely 100% perfect for the job, about having polish and poise and confidence. How dare anyone even THINK we have “areas of development” right? Wrong.
The plain and simple fact is that each and every one of us is flawed. We may show polish and poise on the outside, but our edges are a little bit jagged in some places. Not everyone can be perfect at everything, and really, an interview is about determining if your skills, background and experience are a right fit for both the company and the team.
A true team is one that supports each other with different areas of strength, and a good hiring manager will be aware of the specific needs of her team and know what is needed to create a cohesive, complete group.
You may be good at data and bad at public speaking, and not realize that the team you are joining is full of people who enjoy the spotlight but dislike crunching numbers. Or conversely you might be the one confident in leading meetings and training sessions but be joining a group of individual contributors who are more comfortable staring at their computer screens rather than each other – you just never know.
So, how do you answer the “What are your weaknesses” question? Thoughtfully.
A strong candidate is one that is self-aware and knows how to navigate the work world in a way that allows their talents to shine, while managing their weaknesses.
An example: “While I’m very strong in speaking to data when I lead meetings, one area I am working on is deepening my knowledge of statistics. In fact, I just signed up for a class at my local community college to broaden my knowledge base.”
This example shows that the candidate is aware of their area for development, and also has a plan in place for how to mitigate it.
Another example: I knew of one HR professional I worked with who was excellent with people. She could diffuse conflict situations quickly and easily, and was extremely gifted in managing the nuances of difficult situations such as terminating or laying off employees. But when annual pay raises came around, she found it difficult to calculate spreadsheets of salaries and perform the required data processing.
What did she do about it? She worked with a talented colleague to create a reference sheet that contained all the required formulas for her spreadsheet. When the next pay cycle came around, she was prepared and didn’t have to struggle relearning everything and could use her “cheat sheet” of sorts. She might answer the question like this, “As an HR professional, I know the importance of having a broad skill base. I am very comfortable diffusing conflict situations and supporting people through difficult situations such as layoffs or terminations. One area that I am broadening my skill set in is compensation reporting via Excel. I have partnered with a subject matter expert and am deepening my knowledge of salary formulas. I am also creating a reference sheet which will ensure consistency of process moving forward.” That doesn’t sound so bad, right?
One final caveat – many career advice blogs and books talk about answering this question in a way that turns a “negative” into a positive. For example, “One of my areas of weakness is my tendency to be a perfectionist. I often double and triple check my work to ensure it is of the highest standard.” Sure, you can answer the question that way, but be warned that it’s an overused way of responding to the question and may sometimes raise a red flag in the eyes of your interviewer.
The right hiring manager will understand and appreciate a true answer to the question. And really, what they want to know is if you have a good idea of who you are and what you can contribute. None of us are perfect, and understanding how to work with your own areas of development is key to being successful in the working world.