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Answering the "what is your weakness" question

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have an interview next week for a manager position. I am seeking your help answering the question: What is your greatest weakness?

Here are three I've identified for myself: 1. I am not good listener (but I am working on it); 2. Sometimes I am tough on my team and drive with tight reins; 3. I am too involved in work -- that is my weakness and strength at the same time (a weakness for my family, and a strength for my company).

I'm so pleased that you're thinking about this question before stepping into a job interview. It's a common, albeit stupid, question. There are no real "right" answers. It's not as if the hiring manager will say, "Oh, super! We've been looking for someone who procrastinates and spends half the day on Facebook!"

The question they mean to ask, but don't, is, "How have you overcome a weakness in the past, and how do you plan to continue improving?" But since everyone read the same book of interview questions, written in 1977 by people wearing polyester leisure suits, they ask, "What is your greatest weakness?"

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You need to answer the question they mean to ask, not the one they do ask. And you've thought about your weaknesses, which is good, because hemming and hawing at this question doesn't help your chances, either. Pretending you don't have any weaknesses is also ineffective because everyone has weaknesses. (Well, almost everyone).

Let's start with your third weakness. Let me rephrase that -- let's throw out that third one you cited. While I happen to believe that a lack of balance between the demands of work and home is a true problem, everyone knows it's just a suck-up response. No matter how true it is, if you say, "My biggest weakness is that I work too hard," you'll get an eye roll. But if that truly is your biggest weakness, remember to answer the question they should have asked ("How have you overcome a weakness in the past, and how do you plan to continue improving?") and not the one they did. So your answer would go something like this:

I tend to get hyper-focused on work or on completing a problem, sometimes to the detriment of my family and health. Two years ago I made balance a priority. I set an alarm to go off at 5 p.m. At that point, I stop whatever I'm doing, take a brief walk down to the kitchen, drink a glass of water and come back. My mind is then cleared enough to evaluate what I'm working on and when it needs to be finished. I then write out a list of to-dos in two categories: must be finished tonight and can wait until tomorrow. I've found that in doing this, I'm actually more productive, and I get home to my family at a reasonable hour. Sometimes the "must finish tonight" list is long enough that I have to stay late. But more often than not, I work for another hour or so and then pack up and go home.

You can go through the same process with each of your weaknesses. If you drive your team too hard, what are you doing to change that? What feedback mechanisms are you putting in place? How are you developing a relationship of trust so that your employees feel comfortable coming to you and saying, "Your demands are unrealistic?" 

The key to answering this question in the best possible way is to tell the interviewer how you are fixing the problem, not just that you have the problem. Don't make up something fake. Remember, you want to see if the company is a good fit for you just as much as they want to see if you're a good fit for them.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Soggydan

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