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We've all heard that dreaded interview question: "So what would you consider your biggest weaknesses?" Seasoned interviewers, such as Pat Schoof, a San Francisco Bay Area-based human resource manager with more than 20 years of hiring experience, know better than to haul out this canned question. As Schoof says, "You don't get a real answer from that. It puts people on the defensive."

That said, job prospects are likely to be asked other forms of the same query – delving into the challenges a candidate has faced or mistakes he or she has learned from is a valuable gauge for future performance and fit within a company's culture. So what are interviewers getting at, what do they want to hear, and how to go about broaching the question of mistakes, weaknesses and challenges? Here are a few interviewing tactics to consider:

Acknowledge mistakes (and explain the takeaways)

Step one is to eliminate fears of discussing past mistakes and failures. Hiring managers understand and expect that nobody's perfect. "All of us have made mistakes," Schoof said. "It happens, priorities change. No one wants to make a mistake intentionally. I want to know more about the experience and what you took away from it. Hearing what people say they learned is very important." 

When interviewing, Schoof said she looks at these mistakes as a broken glass, one that can be cleaned up and put in the past. Typically, the kinds of topics that come up are a missed deadline or an unreached goal – situations that are understandable if they happen once or twice and can be corrected.

Pick the right 'weakness' to analyze

On her personal blog, Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk advises interviewees to do their homework and choose an actual weakness to address. Just make sure the weakness won't prevent you from doing the job at hand – which is why doing your homework about a particular position is essential prior to your interview. 

"Someone who is a production artist could say his weakness is finance," she writes. "When people start talking about budgets, he just wants to go back to his cube and work on design. So what if he doesn’t like finance? He is not getting hired to do it."

Basically, it's perfectly fine to be weak at finance if you're interviewing for a creative role, or don't pay much attention to details if you're being hired for a big picture/visionary role. It doesn't make sense that any of us would be interviewing for a job that focuses on our greatest weaknesses – quite the opposite – so relax when this question comes up, be honest and just make sure the weakness you describe won't prevent you from doing the job in question.

Beware of deal-breaker attributes

If your Achilles' heel is that you're an incredibly inflexible manager, it's probably not best to go the other route and be too candid about these traits. With all the coaching and rehearsing of interview answers these days, it's hard to believe that some people might still go into an interview with blunt or negative answers about their expectations, availability or outlook on the workplace. 

"I have had people say point blank 'I only want to work 8 to 5,'" Schoof said. "For most companies, it's not like that anymore, especially with startups. It takes what it takes to get the job done. It's not about the hours."

These are actual weaknesses that may warrant a bit of self-reflection before any interview process. If you want an 8 to 5, weekday job, a startup probably isn't the best place for you. If you're using your interview session as a place to vent about your former employer, a role in human resources isn't a great match. In line with Trunk's advice, know that a job capitalizing on your greatest weaknesses or inflexibilities probably isn't the job for you.

Save the "I'm a perfectionist" answer for someone who doesn't know better

"I'm a perfectionist" or "I work too hard" are common answers some interviewees have picked up because they've been reading too many tips on how to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Your interviewer will see right through this. 

In fact, this could work against you double-time as the perfectionist or workaholic are characters Dr. Neil Lavender, author of "Toxic Coworkers:  How to deal With Dysfunctional People On the Job", advises managers to avoid during the hiring process. "They get mired in the minutia and can't make decisions. They procrastinate," Lavender said.

Instead of these rehearsed answers that won't get you far, name genuine situations or challenges that you've struggled to overcome and learned valuable lessons from. A little common sense goes a long way when it comes to answering these types of questions.

 

Photo credit: Can Stock