How to talk about weaknesses

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

“You have a Hermione complex,” I told my career coaching client.

She was preparing for an interview, and we were talking through the dreaded “What are your weaknesses?” question.

Yes, that question still gets asked all the time, and yes, you have to prepare for it beforehand.

It’s actually an interesting question.

If you dig in to it, avoiding the trite “I’m a perfectionist” and “I’m a workaholic” response options, you signal thoughtfulness and self-awareness with your answer. It shows you’re coachable; in fact, your weaknesses are areas of growth for you, not dead-end personal failings.

“If a consulting client has an issue and I know how to resolve it, I tend to respond immediately, even … late at night and on weekends,” my client said. “If I know the answer, I like to share it.”

I had an image of the adorable Hermione Granger in her first years at Hogwarts, excitedly raising her hand to answer every question in class.

“Yeah, that’s me,” my client sighed. “It’s great customer service, but it tends to set unrealistic expectations and is a bit rough on my colleagues — and myself.”

How to spot a “good” weakness

Talking about an interesting weakness in an interview shows that you’re self-aware of your human faults and frailties. An interview-appropriate weakness is relatable, without being alarming and raising red flags. (Anger management issues might not be a good weakness to share in an interview, for instance.) This is a failing you’ve recognized and are working on, maybe with help from your manager.

“What are your weaknesses?” becomes a very slippery question when you try to turn it into “What are your strengths?” Don’t think of the question as a trap; think of it as an opportunity to be real and genuine about what you’re working to improve about yourself. Often they’re different sides of the same coin.

Constructive feedback on a performance review is a good place to start identifying a good, interview-appropriate weakness. Or a typical situation where you struggle at work. Where do you get in trouble? Where do you consistently stumble? That’s probably an area of growth for you, and excellent fodder for an interview.

How to talk about your weaknesses

Use kindness and humor.

Seriously. Be kind to yourself as you talk with a recruiter or hiring manager about this area of growth for you. You don’t need to self-eviscerate at the interview table or be defensive. You’re telling a story about yourself, and a good story has a compelling lead, interesting plot line, maybe some humor and fun details, and a great conclusion.

Your story about your weaknesses needs a good setup. This is literally the first sentence of your story. I recommend writing it out so you know exactly how you’re starting your story. For example, “I have something of a Hermione complex,” is an intriguing start. It paints a picture; it invites the interviewer to imagine that know-it-all little wizard.

Now sprinkle in a little explanation. Using my client as an example, this could sound like: “I like knowing the answer, and I like sharing the right answer right away — kind of like Hermione Granger when she knew every answer in class.”

Give an example and some interesting details. In the past, I’ve jumped to answer clients’ questions at all hours of the day and night. I’d hear my phone chime in the middle of the night, and pad down to the kitchen in my pajamas to answer right away.”

Take responsibility for the impact. “Doing this trained my clients to expect this level of 24/7 customer service, which is not what we contracted. I was letting my colleagues down, our customers were confused, and I was burning out.”

Conclude your story by summarizing how are you working on this. “Sometimes it’s hard, but I really restrain myself to respond to clients only during working hours. Unless there’s an emergency, of course, in which case all bets are off!”

“Is the Hermione complex a thing?” my client asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I just made it up.”

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.