Owning Your Shortcomings

“What is your greatest weakness?”
“Tell me about a time when you failed at something.”“Have you ever missed a deadline?”

While most job candidates have particular questions that they dread, there are definitely a few that stand out from the pack. The questions outlined above are some of the squirmiest – these are the challenging prompts that nearly every student has concerns about when they schedule a mock interview. And rightly so!

It can be challenging enough to talk yourself up during an interview. Explaining a negative trait or experience in a way that increases your marketability is even more difficult, especially when both the candidate and the interviewer know that every applicant, simply by virtue of being human, has a weakness, failure, or other limitation.Yet, the very best candidates must be able to approach these questions with confidence and navigate them successfully. The responses you provide are not likely to be the factor that gets you the job, but they can communicate some valuable qualities to the employer. For many candidates, these “negative” questions also serve as pitfalls that can trap you into revealing a deal-breaker.

So, how can you prepare yourself to have sticky conversations during interviews, networking events, and other professional interactions? Here are some quick pointers:

Be Accountable

Talking about a mistake or failure with an employer is an opportunity for you to demonstrate accountability. You don’t want to throw yourself completely under the bus, but what you CAN do is demonstrate self-awareness and a capacity to learn from your mistakes. Identify where you went wrong (don’t spend too much time dwelling on it), and discuss what you learned from that mistake or failure. Do NOT blame previous employers and/or coworkers – keep the focus on yourself.If you’re not sure whether or not to share a particular experience, think about the qualifications listed in the job posting and ask yourself this: “Will the information in this story be a deal-breaker to the employer?” If the answer is yes (or even maybe), try to find another, less detrimental example.

Utilize Positive Framing

If at all possible, try to pick examples that result in a positive outcome, even if that outcome is greater self-awareness or a learning experience. Be candid, but spend a minimal amount of time discussing the negative components of the story. Think ahead about any examples of weaknesses, failures, or other mistakes you may get asked about, and think about what lessons you can draw from the story that demonstrate your ability to perform well in the position for which you are interviewing. If you can’t draw any connections, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and pick a more relevant example.

Don’t Burn Any Bridges

At some point in our careers, most of us have worked in a position where we just didn’t “fit” well or had to deal with co-workers that made life difficult. Despite this basic fact of life, you MUST take the high road and avoid placing blame for past mistakes on other people. Employers want to hire candidates who are good team players, not candidates who shirk blame or create tension in the workplace. Plus, the world is surprisingly small and you never know whether your interviewer might somehow be connected to the company or person you badmouth during your conversation.

Emphasize Learning and Growth

When talking about weaknesses or mistakes, emphasize learning and growth as much as possible. For example, after outlining a weakness you should then go on to talk about ways that you address the shortcoming in your professional life. If your weakness is time management, elaborate by talking about how you use a calendar and other organizational techniques to stay on task. Your goal is to demonstrate adaptability, self-awareness, and resiliency.

Do NOT say that you don’t have a weakness – everyone knows that is not true! If you’re stuck, get some feedback from others or ask yourself what your family/friends would likely identify as potential weaknesses.

Get Feedback

If you are unsure about your responses to potential “trap” questions, I highly recommend that you seek some feedback from mentors or career service professionals. There are many times during mock interviews where a student has unwittingly shared a personal story about a mistake/failure that had the potential to damage their job prospects. Getting feedback before your interview is an easy way to avoid a major pitfall!

Remember, addressing your shortcomings is only a small part of the interview, but it can have a significant impact. If you act as if you don’t have any shortcomings, it may look as if you are hiding something. If your shortcomings are too numerous (or too major), the interviewer may have concerns about your ability to do the job. Do your best to respond with honesty, positivity, and professionalism when asked about failures and weaknesses, and keep the main focus of the conversation on your selling points as much as possible!

*This post was partially inspired by a recent article I came across regarding the near-collapse and subsequent rebound of Netflix. Want to see some great examples of accountability from a corporate perspective? Check out some of the quotes by CEO Reed Hastings on the process of bringing Netflix back from the brink of destruction: www.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/business/netflix-looks-back-on-its-near-death-spiral.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

Updated: 20/03/2017