Even if you have a lot of experience hiring, it can be easy to underestimate how difficult it is to write good interview questions. It should take you a fair amount of time and effort if you want to make the most of each conversation. This entry will be the first in a series on how to prep for interviews when you’re the interviewer. Today’s topic is an important element of the interview that’s easy to mess up: asking about a candidate’s weaknesses.
Why ask about weaknesses?
I’ll start by clarifying that I’m not against asking candidates about their weaknesses. I actually think it’s an essential part of an interview, provided it’s done well. For one, discussing only a candidate’s strengths and accomplishments doesn’t show a hiring manager the full picture.
Then there’s the obvious: hiring managers want to know if there’s a lurking incompatibility between the candidate and the job. The candidate might have the right qualifications on paper—they should if they’re progressing in the interview process—but resumes only reveal so much about a candidate, which is why we do interviews. Interviews target a candidate’s so-called “soft skills:” their behavior, temperament, values, and overall approach to work.
The less obvious purpose of the weakness question is to evaluate a candidate’s self-awareness. A desirable candidate understands that no one can excel at everything and has a realistic, mature understanding of their own areas for improvement. They recognize that admitting a weakness is not an indictment of their character. They show genuine openness to self-improvement, which means they’re more receptive to and less likely to get defensive about critical feedback—all ingredients for a great employee. Just keep in mind the candidate’s level of experience when evaluating their self-awareness; it takes time and practice to develop, so more junior candidates might not be quite there yet.
How not to ask the weakness question
Wording your question along the lines of “what is your greatest weakness?” isn’t terribly helpful and can lock the interviewer and candidate into a trite script:
Interviewer: What are your weaknesses?
Candidate: [I don’t want to make myself look bad] I’m just way too perfect. I work too hard.
Interviewer: Good. [moves on, having learned nothing useful about the candidate]
You learn so little about the candidate from this exchange that you might as well have skipped asking the question.
Why does this phrasing tend to elicit such crappy responses? For one, it’s a really direct way to address sensitive topic. Talking about your own weaknesses puts anyone in a vulnerable position. To ask a candidate about weaknesses so directly puts them on the spot (even though they should be prepared for questions like this) and in their desire not to make themselves look bad, they give a milquetoast answer. Also, not everyone thinks of their abilities in such black-and-white terms. You need to avoid asking the weakness question in a way that sets up a false binary (“do you have weaknesses y/n”), or else the candidate will feel compelled to deny having weaknesses at all.
If you want a substantive answer, you can get it even out of a less self-aware candidate if you frame the question more indirectly.
How to ask the weakness question well
Here are some more effective ways* to ask candidates about their weaknesses.
- What’s a major professional challenge you’ve faced in the last year? How did you handle it?
- Tell me about a time when you failed at work.
- What do you think might most challenge you in this role? Why?
- Tell me about a time when you felt misunderstood at work. What caused it?
- Can you give me an example of a work decision you made that you’d make differently today? What would you change and why?
- Tell me about the most difficult assignment you’ve had to complete at work. What made it so difficult?
Why are these more effective? Many of them follow what HR people call the behavioral interview question format. These classic “tell me about a time when…” questions may seem formulaic, but they’re quite effective. Behavioral questions require a candidate to give real examples of how they’ve handled work situations in the past. You’re asking the candidate to tell you a story, which opens them up to be more forthcoming (and possibly reveal something that makes them unsuitable for the job).
Also, since these questions are less direct, the candidate might not realize you’re asking subtly about their weaknesses. You’re less likely get a canned response if the question is unexpected.
But notice that even though they’re less direct, these questions still focus on the theme of weakness: difficulty, challenge, failure, misunderstanding, poor decisions. Be careful not to be so vague that the candidate can’t answer your question because they don’t understand it.
What’s a good answer to these questions?
There’s no single perfect answer to these questions, but an effective one will have these components:
- Self-awareness – the candidate recognizes the weakness and understands its impacts
- Confidence and maturity – the candidate is comfortable admitting to imperfection
- Improvement – how the candidate has improved or their concrete plans to improve
Applying this to one of the sample questions above, here’s what an effective exchange could look like.
Interviewer: What do you think might most challenge you in this role? Why?
Candidate: This role involves public speaking, which I’m not naturally confident with (recognizes weakness). But I know it’s an important skill to have as I pivot my career into sales (understands impacts). I have no issue talking with clients, but I used to freeze when presenting in front of a group (comfortable admitting imperfection). I’ve since learned I need to give myself a lot of time to practice before a presentation (improvement). Now my presentations go much more smoothly, which has improved my confidence when speaking in front of groups (improvement).
Much more useful than “I work too hard,” right?
*Note: I don’t claim to have invented all of these questions myself. They’re modified versions of questions I’ve used in the past, been trained to use by companies with stricter interview scripts, or gathered from HR resources like SHRM. The wording, however, is my own.