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What's Your Biggest Weakness?

Published August 21, 2009 8:07 PM by Glen McDaniel

What do you do when asked by an interviewer, or your boss during a performance evaluation, "What do you think is your greatest weakness?"   That question stops most people in their tracks.

President Bush asked by a reporter if  he had made mistakes was so flummoxed he said he could not think of one and added "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it."

Such a response will make you seem arrogant at best, and either disingenuous or woefully self unaware at worst. It is equally annoying and transparently untrue to say something like "I am such a hard worker, I will sometimes neglect my personal obligations to do a good job at work."

Yet do you want to list all your foibles and challenges? Certainly not.  I have had a t least two different bosses who have used my own self-identified opportunities for improvement as blunt weapons to use against me. I am sure I am not unique in that regard. Sometimes an employee will answer honestly that they want more experience in an area or want to work on improving competency in another.

They are often surprised and disappointed when these then show up on an evaluation as "areas that need work" or "employee needs to work on..." If you cop to doing most tasks yourself rather than delegating, you are likely to be pegged as someone with poor management skills or being unable to manage your time well.

So the best tack is to tell the truth, but phrase the answer in such a way that it shows honesty and the ability to turn a weakness into strength. Show that you have learned some lesson and are the better employee for it.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a psychologist who heads Dattner Consulting  in New York City,  advises both hiring managers and executive job seekers on how to make the best of an interview.  He is not a big fan of the  the "greatest weakness" question at all,  suggests being prepared for those interviewers who insist on asking it anyway.

Dr. Dattner suggests three possible ways to answer:

1. Focus the discussion on how you've improved over time. Instead of rehashing or overemphasizing a current weakness (assuming you can think of one), talk about a past shortcoming and how you resolved it. Maybe you used to have trouble meeting deadlines, for instance, until you took a time-management course that helped you get your schedule under control. "The idea is to show that you are interested in getting better and better at what you do," says Dattner.

2. Talk about how the job you're applying for will help you build on your skills. Again, no matter how good you already are, you can always improve - and you may see specific ways in which this particular job will help you do that. If so, the interview is a good time to mention it.  Rather than saying you have a problem multitasking, you might say: "I have been getting better in managing multiple assignments at once. It sounds like this job will challenge me to get even better in that regard."

3. Describe a valuable piece of advice someone gave you, and how it has helped your career. "This could be, for example, a boss who once told you not to give people the answers but to let them figure things out on their own," says Dattner.

"Or maybe a mentor once pointed out to you that not everyone is motivated by the same things you are, and that insight helped you become a better manager. Whatever the pearl of wisdom you received, a willingness to talk about its positive effect on you shows that you want to learn and grow," Dattner notes. "And that's really what hiring managers are trying to find out."

2 comments

Glen,

Great post!  This question reveals a belief that weakness is innate and somehow damaging to an organization.  I really like Dattner's advice, which suggests (to me) that weakness is, rather, an opportunity.  I agree!

I suppose with best intent the "weakness" question is an invitation to share how the employer could help one succeed.  If so, the "I can tell you how I've improved" still works, which keeps it behavioral based.

Scott Warner August 24, 2009 8:42 PM

I was never asked that exact question in an interview, but I have friends who have. I had always heard you should say something like " I tend to work too hard" or "I am a perfectionist"  But I always thought that was like sucking up and no one would really believe it anyway.

One time I told my supervisor that for the next year I wanted to be schduled more in blood bank to get more experience in blood bank. Sure enough she knocked points off my eval and said "Jason is very weak in Blood Bank. Needs to be more proficient." Needless to say, I was VERY upset. Now I just leave that part of my eval blank. I learned my lesson.

Jason S. (MT(ASCP) August 23, 2009 6:13 PM
TN

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