Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Communicate Your Weaknesses

There will come a time in everyone’s career (or life in general) when a person is asked to identify their primary weakness (or weaknesses). It is also a very common interview question. If you are not ready for this question, it can be very awkward and the answer may not come across in a good way.
Everyone has both strengths and weaknesses – it’s simply a part of being human. Accept that and you’ll be way ahead of the game. Because of that fact, ignoring them, avoiding them or pretending you don’t have them is by far the worst thing you can do. Hiding a problem doesn’t make the problem go away. Learn how to identify and understand your weaknesses and how to properly communicate them to others.
Steps to communicate your weakness;
  • Understand the question. When you’re asked this, especially in an interview, it’s not the weakness that’s the most important thing; it’s whether you are aware of your weaknesses and what you do about them. If the answer is “I don’t have any” then it becomes obvious that the primary weakness is a lack of self-awareness. Also, it's important to understand that being aware of weaknesses is not the same as being weak. Knowing about, and compensating for, your weakness is in fact a very important strength.

  • Be prepared. You should regularly examine yourself to identify your primary weaknesses. If you don’t know what they are, you can’t communicate them to others. If you already know the answer, you won’t have to fumble and you will have considerably greater esteem in the eyes of the interviewer.

  • Avoid the most common mistake. “My greatest weakness is that I’m too much of a perfectionist and I hold myself to a higher standard than I expect from others.” Uh huh. That frankly irritates the interviewer. It also shows, very clearly, that you live in denial of yourself. Ok, maybe you are too much of a perfectionist and that can be a very valid weakness. State it differently. “I sometimes over analyze my work products which can cause me to fall behind in other tasks.” That really means the same thing but it is an honest weakness. Instead of saying, “People are intimidated by me because I’m such a strong leader” try “When I’m in a leadership role, I sometimes come across as being overbearing.” Twisting your answer to make it seem like your primary weakness is that you’re already perfect will always fail. The interviewer will actually recognize what you’re doing and you won’t be fooling anybody (except perhaps yourself).

  • Be clear and concise. Don’t overstate things. Don’t ramble. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t explain too much. If someone asks you the time, that’s not asking you to explain the inner workings of an atomic clock. The interviewer is looking for something very specific and if you focus too much on the initial part of the answer you’ll miss the opportunity to really shine in the second part of the answer.

  • Immediately follow with good news. Okay, you’ve clearly identified your weakness, you’ve stated it concisely and shown that you have good awareness of your personal issues. So now what? Just knowing your weakness is good, but what are you doing about it? That is the crux of the question and must be the focus of your answer. “I sometimes over analyze my work products which can cause me to fall behind in other tasks. To avoid that, I set aside a specific amount of time for review. When that time is up, I move to the next task on my list of priorities.” Yay! You’ve just proven that you can analyze yourself, identify your weaknesses, and develop useful methods to overcome them. That is what the interviewer wants to know. Develop a list of compensatory techniques associated with each weakness.

  • Continue to be clear and concise. When you state your compensatory technique, it really needs to be focused on the issue at hand. It must not be vague or imprecise at all. The method you use to overcome your weakness must be as well composed as the weakness itself – both have to be very solidly identified and communicated with lucidity.

  • Stop and wait. After you answer the question, stop talking. Wait for the interviewer to speak next. You’re done. You’ve given them what they asked for so wait for a response. You might have to wait an uncomfortable amount of time. The interviewer might very well insert (on purpose) a lengthy pause to see what you’ll do. Look them in the eye (no, don’t “stare them down”) with a comfortable expression on your face and wait for them to give you feedback. Be prepared for them to ask you if there are any more!

  • Don’t be a one-hit-wonder. You should have three weaknesses and compensatory techniques at your fingertips. The interviewer is quite likely to ask you a second time and often a third time. “What else?”, “Any more?” - if you get asked a fourth time (oh how exasperating that is) there’s a good way to handle that. “When I do this exercise, maybe once a quarter or so, the list might change from time to time. I limit my focus to three current weaknesses so I don’t become overwhelmed. If you ask me again in June, I might have a different answer for you then.”

  • Follow-up with a strength. Once you’ve gotten feedback and you’ve passed the initial test, be ready to expand the conversation to strengths. When you do your self-examination, don’t limit it to your weaknesses… also identify your primary strengths. For each strength you should identify how it benefits you. Knowing that you have strengths is useless unless you know how to use them. It is every bit as important to know where you’re strong as to know where you’re weak.

  • Analyze regularly. As indicated above, this is not a one-time shot. You should do this exercise on a regular basis (but don’t become obsessed). More often than once a quarter is not enough time for any substantial changes to occur. If you wait more than a year, you’re missing opportunities to improve and the self-assessment skills will be rusty. Start with a 3-month recurring event and if that’s too often, drop it down to once every 6 months.

"You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?"Robert Lewis Stevenson The Amateur Emigrant (1895)