The interview question from hell: what are your strengths and weaknesses?

How to answer the question, "What are your strengths/weaknesses?"

“Know thyself” - Socrates

Have you ever gone into a job interview without preparing for the inevitable “strengths and weaknesses” question? If this sounds all too familiar, this is the article for you!


Perfect is the enemy of good. Everyone wants to be innovative, but at the same time, we often all end up saying the same thing. A huge number of interviewees make this mistake by saying, when talking about weaknesses, “I’m a perfectionist.” As for a specific strength, they might say, “I’m very motivated and dynamic.” However, by putting a little effort in, you can turn your answer to this problematic question into a real positive. Our article isn’t about giving you THE answers. Instead we suggest an effective method to turn your response to this thorny question into a genuine “all about you” moment. So, what is the best way to prepare for this question?

Why recruiters ask this question

Basically, this question is about finding out if you’re in tune with the spirit of the company and the requirements of the job you’re applying for. Thinking about three strengths and three weaknesses related to the position helps you (and recruiters!) establish if the role will suit your personality. A good answer can only have a positive impact on any upcoming job interview. In fact, the importance of this question lies beyond one specific interview. It relates to every one of your job searches because it’s all about YOU.

Your approach to answering this question can be summed up in Socrates’ simple maxim: “Know thyself.”

Knowing yourself

It’s often difficult to describe yourself objectively, so it’s useful to approach your close and extended circle of family, friends and colleagues to find out their views of your personality in your everyday life, in the office, on holiday—in fact, in any life situation.

What’s the best way to ask your friends and colleagues for honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses? Zack Johnson, CEO of Syndio Social, a HR analytics company in Chicago, has devised a simple experiment that you might want to try (watch his TED talk here). It begins from the observation that getting sincere feedback is tricky. Most people you ask won’t want to hurt your feelings and it’s very likely you’ll be showered with compliments!

It feels good to get a healthy dose of praise, especially at a time when your self-esteem should be at its highest, but in reality it is often more useful to know your weaknesses. The experiment below can help in giving you an unbiased view of who you really are.

Zack Johnson’s experiment

In order to get the most honest answers as you possibly can, ask the following questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What am I not so good at?
  • Give me three adjectives that best describe my strengths, or the best aspects of my personality.
  • Give me three adjectives that best describe my weaknesses, or aspects of my personality that need improvement.
  • What roles do I play with those closest to me on a daily basis?

Next, try creating a simple, anonymous online questionnaire using free tools such as Survey Monkey, Google Forms or Typeform. Send it to a dozen people you know, such as friends, family, colleagues, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends or teachers, and ask them to respond spontaneously. Most importantly, make sure they know that it’s anonymous and there won’t be any potential repercussions!

Feedback

Johnson explains that the effect is a little like seeing yourself in a movie or reading a description of yourself in a book. Some answers will be positive while others will be more eye-opening. But the key points to take away from the results are as follows:

  1. Anonymity brings honesty. Have you ever wanted to get into people’s minds to find out what they really think about you? Well, now’s the time to do this.
  2. The credibility of answers. Have you noticed one specific weakness that emerges several times in the questionnaire answers? That means there’s no doubt about it—so you must own it. When all your colleagues and friends notice the same personality traits, you can be sure that those are indeed representative of how you are in any given situation.
  3. Create a mini personality database. While there are usually a couple of qualifying adjectives found on job websites, there’s a whole range that you can use for positions you are intending to apply for. Additionally, the diversity of your respondents can highlight strengths that you had not been previously identified.
  4. Did some answers indicate you are a calm person? This is a real asset for the sometimes difficult-to-fill role of business developer. Calmness indicates that you are also likely to be a thoughtful and dedicated person.
  5. Regardless of whether the answers are good or bad, the important thing is what you do with them. More often than not, we are well aware of our weaknesses. Correcting them can sometimes remove a strength that relies on one or more of those weaknesses. Therefore, always try to embrace your weaknesses and think of ways to show them in a positive light.

More than anything, the results of this experiment should make you realise how much you mean to those people who have taken the time to respond. It’s because they care about you! When you’re looking for a new job, it’s important to feel supported and encouraged. This survey is a way of involving your nearest and dearest and allows them to help you in your job search.

Johnson insists that we all have to make choices about who we want to be. You will never excel in all areas or be appreciated by everyone. So, choose your battles, choose your interviews, and above all, don’t give yourself guilt trip. Just because you don’t fit in with one company doesn’t mean you won’t fit in with any of them. You need to choose goals that you can focus on and achieve, which includes matching your personality and values with the right job opportunities.

At least now you know how to find them!

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: WTTJ

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Margot Peignier

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Preparing for interviews

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