As part of my daily trawling of the web, searching for useful nuggets of career insight to pass along, I came across a great post here by Lance Haun, author of the exceptional “Your HR Guy” blog.  In this article, Lance (who always tells it like it is from a human resource standpoint) discusses the perennial “What is your greatest weakness?” interview question and how job hunters should approach it.

Essentially, Lance agrees with my own perspective on this question, which is that employers largely ask it as a test of an individual’s preparation and self-awareness.  And what they are looking for in terms of a response, in most cases, is an honest admission of vulnerability around some work-related characteristic — followed by a compelling statement of how you have learned to compensate for your area of weakness or improve on it over the years.  What they are most certainly NOT looking for is somebody to claim they don’t have any weaknesses or to try to sneak by with a cheesy, cliched answer like “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m a perfectionist.”

So in advising my clients on how to answer this common question, over the years, I’ve simply asked them to think back and find at least one area where their supervisors have requested improvement — or identify one area where they know they could benefit from further development.  They then should isolate this weakness and be ready to talk about it for a minute or two, touching upon how they became aware of it, an example of how it’s gotten in their way, and a discussion of how they’ve taken proactive steps to address the issue, over the years.  They might even look the hiring manager square in the eye and say “And while I’ve gotten much better in this particular area, I’d still look to you as my supervisor, if hired, to watch my back on this issue and offer any suggestions that might make me even more effective at dealing with it.”

Over the years, I can think of many people who have answered this question in a way that was really powerful and that made me more likely to hire them, not less.  For example, there was one executive who admitted his weakness was that he “didn’t learn as quickly as other people” and therefore got up an hour early, every day, to read and conduct research in the areas most pertinent to his job.  There was another individual who said her weakness was that “she gets extremely focused when she’s under a deadline” and has been told she can come across as cold or aloof to her colleagues in these situations.  So she said she warns all of her teammates, in advance, of this tendency and that they shouldn’t take it personally when she gets this way.  She also says that she is now much better at catching herself acting this way, now that she’s aware of the pattern, and that this has helped a ton in preventing issues from arising.

So this is the type of answer I’d encourage you to craft in your own situation.  Hopefully, too, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t pick a weakness that would be a true “job killer” when responding to this question, no matter how much you may have improved on it.  Don’t say that you’re terrible with details, for example, if you’re an accountant or a quality control inspector.  And don’t follow in the footsteps of the one customer service representative I interviewed who said she “isn’t good at taking feedback” from her managers.  Wow.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this individual is still looking for a job, years later…

P.S.  And back to Lance Haun’s blog posting for a moment; make sure to read the series of comments posted UNDER the blog article, as well, since they deepen the discussion in a very interesting and useful way!