Jules Halliday is an author, public speaker, career coach, and business development trainer with over 20 years of experience.
"What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?"
Oh, here we go! Of all the people I've ever interviewed, this has to be the one that stumps them the most. There seems to be a 50:50 split on whether they find it easier to talk about their strengths or their weaknesses.
It’s a hugely popular question among interviewers—so careful, considered answers with examples are a must.
Whether you are asked about your strengths, weaknesses, or both, it is essential that they have relevance to the role. There’s no point in talking about how fabulous your communication skills are if you will be required to work on your own, never coming into contact with customers or colleagues.
If, however, you are interviewing for a customer-facing or telephone role, then stating that you are an excellent communicator who can build rapport easily with a variety of people would be a simple way to highlight your strength.
Really analyse the role. What key characteristics are required? What tasks will you be performing on a day-to-day basis? If you are applying for an analytical role that requires number crunching, then stating that your weakness is maths is not going to do you any favours.
Think about what the interviewer wants to hear, and of course, avoid what you think they don’t want to hear. Keep in mind that each answer you give should add value to the position or company.
There are many variations of strength and weakness questions, including:
- "Are there any areas of your work that you could be more effective in?"
- "What work skills do you think you can improve on?"
- "What would your previous employer say your weaknesses are?"
- “What is the one key attribute you possess that helps you excel in the workplace?”
- “What qualities were highlighted positively in your last appraisal?"
All of these questions are variations on the same theme, so prepare your answers for your strengths and weaknesses and adapt accordingly.
So let’s take a look at your strengths.
“What Is Your Greatest Strength?”
Whatever you state here, make sure you can back it up with an example. There’s a high chance that if your answers revolve around management or team-leading skills, you will be asked later in the interview to provide examples of how you have successfully managed a team. You don’t want your credibility to take a nose dive if you can’t answer.
If you talk about a quality such as paying attention to detail, for example, you may be asked to elaborate on how that will help you perform in the role.
Avoid all the overused clichés and meaningless phrases such as team player, hard-working, patient, positive, reliable, and good timekeeper unless you can quantify your answer with tangible results or scenarios.
Take a look at the job description and person specification again and analyse what you think you would expect the greatest strengths of the person in the role should be. Do you possess any of these qualities? If you do, then that’s where you should start. If the documents state that a requirement is creativity, and you can demonstrate how your creativity translates to the role, then fantastic!
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Perhaps working to KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) is listed. If that’s the case and you have achieved or exceeded targets in the past, then now would be a great time to highlight this as a strength.
- “One of my strengths is that I am motivated to achieve and exceed set targets. In my last role, I was successful in hitting all sales targets and improved by 5% on the prior year.”
The interviewer may follow this up with a question such as “Describe to me the action you take to ensure you achieve these targets.” Your answer could be:
- “Another of my strengths is my ability to take the bigger picture and break it down into small manageable tasks. I look at the target I have to achieve, say by the end of the quarter and then work out what I need to achieve on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. By doing this I can strive to be the best I can be on each day.”
Providing examples such as these which are directly related to the job give the interviewer another opportunity to visualise you in the role.
- “My greatest strength is my ability to focus on my work. I'm not easily distracted, and this means that my performance is very high, even in a busy office like this one.”
What real-life examples can you think of? Perhaps you are a dab hand at dealing with customer complaints with patience, empathy and objectivity.
When faced with a challenge or a problem do you have the ability to remain calm, focussed and positive?
Are you a superstar when it comes to planning and preparation?
- “My organisational skills are my greatest strength and together with being able to prioritise and plan effectively I'm capable of keeping many projects on track at the same time ensuring deadlines are met.”
If you really can’t think of anything then take the time to ask a colleague or your supervisor. I am sure they can.
“What Is Your Biggest Weakness?”
Now don’t go running yourself into the ground with this one.
Often I hear that you should choose a strength and portray it as a weakness. I can see why some people would choose to adopt this route, but in all honesty, interviewers are savvy to this approach and may not take kindly to being deceived.
A better approach is to admit that you have a weakness and talk about how you recognise this and are working on it or have taken steps to overcome it fully. This shows more strength of character than the preceding paragraph.
Try to keep it simple, especially if you suffer from nerves.
One of the best examples I encountered was a candidate that told me she gets frustrated when colleagues don’t share her work ethic and grab any opportunity to skive off (her words!) or pull a sickie. She then explained that she has now learned to bide her time as these people always get found out in the end.
This then led to me asking about what their working relationship was like when they did show up for work. Her answer was simple;
- “I always strive to have a good working relationship with all my colleagues regardless of their ethics or morals. We all need to work together to get the job done and be as productive as possible while the opportunity is there.”
These were really basic, simplistic answers but gave me exactly what I wanted to hear. What she deemed as a weakness was actually a strength to me as she had the ability to make the best out of a bad situation.
You may be thinking that I should have followed up with a question on why she didn’t tell her supervisor that her colleagues were slacking off. Well, firstly, I don’t like interrogation questions, and secondly (I had already asked several questions by this point), I felt that this showed respect for her supervisor as she did say that they always get found out in the end. I was more interested in the fact that she kept her cool, her patience, and remained focussed on the job.
Whatever you choose, you must show that you have or are at least trying to change this. Recognising that you have a weakness and are working to change or reduce this is another example of your self-awareness and accountability.
- “When faced with a project, I sometimes find it difficult to get started as I generally have lots of creative ideas. The way I try to overcome this is to start with the end in mind. Once I have established what the result has to be, I can then list all the important points to get there. When I have the order ready, I can then tackle the beginning, and my creative flair can be added along the way.”
- “When I know I am getting close to closing the deal, I tend to get excited and talk too quickly and at too high a volume. I know this is because I am passionate about the product and enthusiastic about the sale, but to customers, it can feel like they are being rushed. I researched calming techniques on the internet, and although there were many helpful tips, I found that the best one for me is slowing my breathing and relaxing my shoulders which really helps slow down my speech and reduces the volume. I have noticed a significant increase in my cross and upselling success since doing this.”
- “In the past, I have found planning and prioritising a challenge. I now use Outlook on both my computer and work mobile phone to sync appointments and block out time for travel and the unexpected. I find this much easier than using a handwritten diary as I can now move tasks and appointments around should I have a cancellation and see at a glance what is coming up.”
What you don’t want to say is that you find it hard to start projects as you are a daydreamer; you let everyone in the room hear you are about to seal the deal or that your desk looks like an explosion in a paper factory. Make yourself sound appealing, not appalling.
Steer well clear of stating you are a perfectionist, you work too hard, or you are too flexible. Statements such as these are difficult to substantiate and could well come back to haunt you in the future.
Our strength grows out of our weaknesses.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Reach for the Stars
Begin prepared for these questions will pay dividends in your interview. Be confident in your delivery without being overly confident or self-deprecating.
You're great! Reach for the stars!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
That random person on May 18, 2016:
This was very useful for me, especially since I struggle a lot with answering these questions properly. This post gave me good tips and advice. Thanks!
OSBERT JOEL C from CHENNAI on May 13, 2014: