Interview questions about weaknesses

Interview panels are fond of asking questions about candidates’ weaknesses. Applicants can struggle with responding, reasonably not wanting to give any reason for discounting their suitability.

Why do panels ask such questions and how can an applicant usefully respond?

While the wording of the question may not be well crafted, the basis for the question is sound. Capability frameworks include relevant behaviours such as ‘seeks feedback on behaviour’, ‘reviews performance’, ‘identifies development needs’.

Questions about weaknesses are often more about finding out whether you learn from feedback and can reflect on your behaviour than asking you to list your imperfections.

Three points applicants need to keep in mind are:

  • When you examine all the skills, knowledge and qualities in a person’s portfolio, some will be stronger than others. People are skilled at some things and not others.
  • Many ‘weaknesses’ can be a strength in some situations. Impatience can be useful in an emergency. Some caution is needed when facing a major decision.
  • While it is useful to be aware of behaviours that negatively impact on your work performance and to take action to change those behaviours, sound management practice focuses on encouraging people to use their strengths.

Given these points there will be areas where you could know more or do things better. It largely depends on how serious it is and what impact lacking this knowledge or skill has in the workplace.

As part of an interview preparation strategy, applicants can anticipate and prepare for questions about weaknesses. When preparing for this question there are several points to keep in mind.

  • Do not pick a skill or quality that is included in the job specifications. It will not go down well if you say you crack up under pressure if one of the criteria concerns ability to meet tight deadlines.
  • Pick something that has substance but is not vital to the job. It could be a personal quality, skill or subject area. It could be a gap filled, a response to feedback, or a quality that is part of who you are.
  • Identify what you are doing to improve or manage around your weakness.
  • Decide whether you wish to call it a weakness. You may wish to reframe a weakness as ‘an area I’ve identified I need to improve or change or develop’.
  • Use the SAR or STAR approach to structure your response.

Based on these points your answer, using a response about a gap to fill, might sound like this.

‘A few years ago I realised that if I wanted to move into a marketing role I needed to fill a gap in my skills, namely networking. Up until then I had been shy when mixing with strangers and found it difficult to attend meetings where I didn’t know anyone. Having attended two workshops on the subject and applied them at various functions, I now attend meetings with confidence and readily mix and mingle. This has proven immensely valuable. Not only have I been able to represent my agency well but I’ve also been able to make others feel more comfortable at such meetings, thereby building positive relationships across agencies.’

Notice that this answer does not stop at identifying the weakness and what was done. It goes on to identify the value that now accrues from this change with the implication that the new employer will also benefit. Note too that it could also be used as a response to a question on achievements.

An answer based on feedback might go like this:

‘Last year I received feedback from my team that I needed to give more individual recognition. During the following six months I gave this particular attention. Whenever members of my team performed well I made a point of thanking them or commending them individually and in private. When appropriate I also acknowledged them publicly. At the next formal feedback session staff said they were pleased with the change.’

An answer based on a more permanent quality is:

‘When I attended a training program on influencing skills I completed a tool that indicated my preferred communication habits. One of these is my tendency to deal with information quickly. I learned that other people are not all like that and it helped me to realise that my irritation with some staff stemmed from this difference. Now that I know this what I do when working with these people is to allow more time for them to respond. I stop myself from giving hurry up signals that put people off. I’ve noticed this has made a big difference to getting along with these people.’

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.