Tackling the "Strengths and Weaknesses" Part of Your Interview: Don't Try to Appear Flawless

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Here it is, one of those tried-and-true interview questions you've been waiting for: "Tell me about one or two of your greatest weaknesses." It's a sticky question because you can easily end up coming across as either unrealistically superior ("Weaknesses, really? Let me think...") or embarrassingly cliché ("I have to admit, I'm a terrible perfectionist").

Simply posing as an overachiever when asked about your shortcomings will usually come across as insincere and transparent, and if so you'll be striking a sour chord with your interviewer.

Also, it's probably best not to try and bamboozle the person interviewing you by not so subtly avoiding the question at hand. One career coach proposes the following possible answer to the "list your shortcomings" question, for instance:

"When I'm working on a project, I don't want just to meet deadlines. Rather, I prefer to complete the project well ahead of schedule."

You're obviously listing a strength, not a weakness, here, and your interviewer see this as the whitewash it is.

Admit your flaws

A much better answer for finance professionals: Fess up to that Type A personality, if you've got one, but keep in mind it's a typical problem area and don't stop there. Instead explain that your assertiveness and focus has presented you with a serious set of challenges you've been successfully mastering.

Respond with something like, "A few years ago, when I was less experienced, I used to overly criticize the members of my team because I considered myself a perfectionist. Over time it began to understand how counterproductive that was. I've since come to realize that building relationships with the people I work with is more important than being in control every minute, and that giving them some more leeway to contribute their own ideas would benefit all of us so much more-the employer, myself and the organization we were working for."

Discuss what you did to improve

It's important to finish off such an admission by saying what you did to a change for the better, as in: "Today, I check myself to make sure I am listening to my employees. I make sure to ask for their input and work to offer constructive criticism, as opposed to pressing for my own agenda." If you can quantify the results of your efforts, documenting an increase in production in your department or a project or client that came through due to your efforts at personal improvement, so much the better. Rather than making a subjective comment, like "everything ran so much smoother," offer details and results.

Canada's Globe and Mail took on the "weaknesses" interview challenge recently. In that piece, Eileen Dooley, lead consultant for Cam McRae Consulting in Calgary, noted, "Research has shown that the strongest candidates are ones that admit to mistakes and shortcomings, and clearly articulate what they learned from them and how they will overcome them."

The article came up with a few more examples of how to document weaknesses during an interview: For example, "Time management is a common weakness, as well as being able to say no to a request. [Thus] you may talk about how you make a list each morning of tasks you need to accomplish, and check them off as you go along."

Use personal anecdotes

Another useful idea: If you have a personal anecdote that involves the workplace and underscores your point, don't "lead" with it necessarily, but consider using that to tie up your comments.

As Dooley explained: "I had a client say that he misses out on office chit-chat because he does not go out after work with the staff. This is also interpreted by many that he is anti-social and not interested. The fact is that he has small children at home who go to bed early and he wants to see them for that short time after the work day. To address this, he makes a point of getting together with his colleagues during lunch or coffee breaks to catch up on office news."

The bottom line is that interviewers have no interest in seeing you as flawless. They want to know that you are not afraid of taking stock of yourself and learning from mistakes. They wonder if you're the type of person who can see a situation clearly-including a tricky one like being aware of your own shortcomings-and then take the necessary steps turn things around.

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