What's your greatest weakness?

Why Ask This Question?

Other variations on this theme include:

What would you consider to be your occasional fault or over strength'?'' ''Of your past supervisors, who would give you the weakest reference and


What one area do you really need to work on in your career to become more effective on a day-to-day basis?''

You would think that most job candidates have preplanned responses to these often-asked queries. That's not, however, always the case. There are still a surprising number of people out there who give very little advance thought to this common self-evaluation query. You could use that element of surprise to your advantage.

Analyzing the Response

The ''greatest weakness'' question is somewhat unnerving because it causes discomfort. After all, no one wants to discuss shortcomings. Although the purpose of the question is certainly not to make anyone uncomfortable, many unsuspecting individuals will use this entree as an invitation to ''come clean'' and bare their souls to you. That's when you'll learn that they sometimes run late getting to work, feel intimidated in any kind of public-speaking forum, or tend to be too overbearing with coworkers.

Red Flags

Note as well that it's a poor answer for candidates to respond that they have no weaknesses. After all, interviewing, to a large extent, is a game to see how deftly a person lands on her feet. By admitting no weaknesses, the person refuses to ''play the game,'' so to speak.

In that case, you'll need to provide a gentle nudging along the lines of, ''Oh, Janet, everyone has some kind of weakness. What should I expect to be your shortcomings if we work together on a day-to-day basis?'' If that coaxing fails to produce a response, beware the precedent that is being set toward poor communications and a lack of openness.

Good Answers. In contrast, what are acceptable responses that place a candidate in a favorable light? Look for replies that center on the person's impatience with her own performance, inclination toward being a perfectionist (which could slow the individual down but guarantees quality results), or tendency to avoid delegating work to others for fear that it won't get done to the candidate's high expectations. In short, the wisest ''weaknesses'' are strengths taken to a fault. After all, people who are impatient with their own performance typically have very high expectations of themselves. Neatniks can't bear the possibility of sending out letters that contain errors. And those who have difficulty delegating are results-oriented, focused individuals who generally don't watch the clock.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Once again, the key to adding a broader dimension to the candidate's response lies in employing a behavioral interviewing format. Try looking for contrary evidence that focuses on the negative impact of the person's actions. For example, typical comebacks you could use to the reply ''I have problems delegating work to other people because I find that the end result doesn't meet my expectations'' might include:

• Tell me about the last time you didn't delegate work to a subordinate and you were left handling a disproportionate amount of the workload. How did you feel about that? How did you handle that situation differently the next time?

• Give me an example of a time when your not having delegated work to a direct report left that person feeling that his career development needs weren't being met.

• Share with me a circumstance in which you were frustrated by your boss's inability to delegate work to you. How did you eventually gain that person's trust?

The variations are limitless. Candidates have no way of preparing canned responses to your interview questions, and therein lies the true beauty of the behavioral query.

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