Being honest and self aware vs. hiding your weaknesses

While I was in school at a community college, I was in one of several courses that could have been titled “How to Prepare for a Job, Disguised as a Course About ______.” One of the topics we covered was how to handle the job interview question, “What is your greatest weakness?”

The answer to addressing that question was to describe your weakness in a way that demonstrates an asset. For example, you might emphasize how you have developed other strengths for that foible.

At that time, my greatest weakness was procrastination. Although one could say that since I don’t procrastinate for a living, I’m not a professional, making me an amateurcrastinator. (Bad pun, I know. Maybe that’s my new greatest weakness.)

If rock solid abs are a weakness, does that mean I'm really strong?
If rock solid abs are a weakness, does that mean I’m really strong?

But the positive side of procrastination, when coupled with a desire to accomplish things and complete work, is that it forces a person to work efficiently and quickly with feverish devotion. As I explained in the mock job interview in class, I still met deadlines and completed my tasks with high quality, and my history of procrastination had trained me to do so quickly.

This answer drew criticism from the professor. She told me that saying I have a weakness of procrastination would reflect negatively on me. Instead, I should have proffered a weakness such as…I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something that was not a weakness. “My greatest weakness is that I come to work on time every day,” or, “My greatest weakness is that I can be counted on to do whatever I am assigned.”

What?

Those are NOT weaknesses.

I finally got a bit of vindication recently when a talent recruiter Erin Miller wrote about “What Recruiters Remember” for Business2Community. After recounting a disastrous interview she conducted, she listed four questions on which recruiters will evaluate a candidate.

  1. Were you friendly?
  2. Were you prepared?
  3. Were you direct?
  4. Were you self-aware?
  5. Did you use humor?

Her discussion of the fourth question sounds like she’s interviewed people who were in that community college class with me.

Recruiters hear a lot of fancy word-smithing and tall-tale-spinning in interviews. One of my favorites is always, “My biggest weakness is that I work too hard,” or “I care too much.”

True. Those aren’t weaknesses. Miller says these statements make recruiters feel like the candidate is sidestepping the question about weaknesses. She continues:

I cannot stress it enough – it is okay to have flaws. It is even good to have flaws, if you are aware of them and can speak to them. Candidates who are aware of their shortcomings and have demonstrated innovative ways to manage them are always more interesting to me. This skill also shows that a candidate thinks critically and finds solutions with ease – two extremely important qualities for any position.

There you have it, straight from a recruiter’s mouth.

Make no mistake—you will make mistakes throughout your career and your life. You will always have weaknesses. Being honest about them with yourself allows you to identify ways to improve. Being honest about them with other people helps motivate you to overcome them rather than accept and hide.