How to Talk About Your Weaknesses in a Job Interview
Interviews can be nerve-wracking experiences. You’re alone, sitting across from strangers who are judging your abilities and knowledge, with the prospect of a job hanging on the line. Candidates want to present themselves as competent potential employees, so it’s no wonder many have trouble when asked about their weaknesses.
Rob Johnson, senior director of engineering at data intelligence company Collibra, values the insight a candidate’s reflection on their own weaknesses provides, but he usually words the question a little differently.
“Sometimes wording means a lot,” Johnson said. “I like to say: ‘Tell me about a challenging situation where perhaps you made a mistake. What are your personal challenges?’”
How to Talk About Weaknesses in Interviews
- Use it as an opportunity to talk about growth. Acknowledge your shortcomings and demonstrate how you’re working on them.
- Weaknesses can be overcome through strong communication. And how you describe past mistakes speaks volumes about your collaboration style.
- Avoid disingenuous answers. Your biggest weakness isn’t that you work too hard, or that you care too much.
Putting the focus on challenges themselves instead of the candidate’s weaknesses encourages people to open up and share. Still, it can be difficult. Johnson estimates that, even among experienced engineers, candidates are often reluctant to answer this question and only give guarded answers.
“About 50 percent of the time, people will not say anything of consequence,” Johnson said. “I try to make them feel at ease to share it, but I think people are scared.”
As a way to get candidates to open up, Johnson sometimes shares his own mistakes he made during his early career working at an energy company, both as a way to demonstrate what types of responses he’s looking for and also to create an environment that’s welcoming to admitting and owning your weaknesses.
“I made a mistake, I was trying to move too quickly, and I unplugged the control system.”
One story he likes to share is from his time working as an electrical engineer for a Chicago gas company. During his shift one evening, he made a mistake that could have suddenly shut off heat for half a million Chicago residents.
“I made a mistake, I was trying to move too quickly, and I unplugged the control system,” Johnson said. “It was the coldest night of the winter and our control system was unplugged.”
Thankfully, redundancies were in place at the company to prevent errors like that from having catastrophic results. And Johnson learned it’s best to take a breath and think through all the steps before taking on a task that could have big consequences.
Knowing how to talk truthfully about your weaknesses in an interview can be important, because hiring managers value employees who are self-aware and take ownership of their mistakes. It’s not as scary as you think, so long as you do it right.
Use Questions About Weaknesses as an Opportunity to Talk About Growth
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about your weaknesses at a job interview, but rather than opening yourself up to criticism, it actually can have the opposite effect.
“It can make you seem quite confident, honestly, if you’re able to talk about those in the right way with your hiring manager and use it as a way to assess mutual fit,” said Alicia Gansley, a senior engineer at Chainalysis, a startup that helps businesses and regulatory bodies track blockchain activity.
Nobody is born knowing all the answers. Hiring managers expect people to make errors as they develop as engineers — it’s how they grow and learn.
Candidates who can talk about their weaknesses demonstrate self-awareness. It may seem obvious that everyone makes mistakes, but recognizing them isn’t a universal skill. Employees who struggle to do so are much more likely to keep repeating them, and that can hurt the company over time.
Asking about weaknesses also helps companies filter out candidates who try to hide mistakes. The best thing to do when encountering serious problems is to inform others at the company immediately in order to provide an opportunity to fix it together — hiding problems will only make them worse.
“If you made a mistake in your experiment, let’s just fess up to it so we can make progress towards delivering our software.”
Companies may also interpret the inability to talk about weaknesses as a lack of curiosity and interest in improvement. Employees who don’t seek out opportunities for feedback simply won’t find any problems, and that can hold back their growth and their future contributions to the company. Speaking honestly about weaknesses signals to employers that you take feedback seriously.
When done well, it can also give candidates opportunities to demonstrate improvement and learnings. One method is highlighting any insight and knowledge gained from your prior shortcomings.
“Otherwise it’s just a mistake,” Johnson said. “If there’s nothing you learned from any mistake, to me that’s a warning sign.”
He gave the example of a developer who deferred to a product manager’s feature decisions after an argument, realizing they were in the wrong for promoting a solution that wasn’t sufficiently customer focused. That’s not to say developers should always defer to product managers — but it demonstrates an appreciation for the importance companies place on employees being self-aware.
“I like a scientific work environment where it’s about solving the problem,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes — humans make mistakes. If you made a mistake in your experiment, let’s just fess up to it so we can make progress toward delivering our software.”
Weaknesses Can Be Overcome Through Collaboration and Communication
Companies also like to ask questions about challenges and weaknesses to gauge how candidates would interact with others and contribute to the team environment.
“Relationships and communication are critically important for engineers, no matter the stereotype of the geeky engineer sitting in a cave,” Johnson said. “They need to work with stakeholders, they need to speak in front of customers a lot of times — we need engineers that communicate.”
There’s a lot that goes into being an effective communicator, especially the type who’s able to navigate tricky situations caused by their own shortcomings. But being able to own up to mistakes and weaknesses is the first step. Developers who are defensive and unwilling to admit when they’re wrong can throw a project off course by wasting their team’s time arguing about solutions that aren’t viable.
“I like self-awareness,” Johnson said. “That means they’re going to be a great contributor to the team and they’re going to be humble and willing to help move things forward.”
“I like self-awareness. That means they’re going to be a great contributor to the team and they’re going to be humble and willing to help move things forward.”
Gansley said it’s especially important to have employees who are open and honest with each other in a startup environment. Many startups lack the structure found at more established companies, relying instead on individual contributors to take initiative in identifying, prioritizing and executing tasks. Succeeding in an environment like that requires transparent and effective communication.
“Especially at a startup, you’re going to be wearing a lot of hats and there’s going to be high expectations,” Gansley said. “If you can start with that level of trust in the interview process and carry it forward into your actual role working with the team, then that can really look good for a candidate.”
Being open about weaknesses can also reap unexpected benefits for the candidate themselves.
“Maybe the manager will feel like the weakness you’re bringing up is something they’ve also worked with,” Gansley said. “Maybe you’re going to find the best coach for yourself by being upfront about your weaknesses during the interview process.
Avoid Giving Disingenuous Answers
There’s no right answer for candidates who are asked to talk about their weaknesses, but there are some bad ones. For starters, it’s probably best to avoid saying that your weaknesses are also your strengths.
“People who give a disingenuous answer, like, ‘My biggest problem is I care too much or work too hard’ — I’m a little suspicious, because that’s not what I’m going for,” Johnson said. “Are you trying to say you’re perfect and you’ve never made a mistake? I want to know how you learn from mistakes, because mistakes help you grow.”
Candidates can talk about any aspect relevant to their jobs — whether it’s familiarity with technologies, struggles with certain business processes, or even difficulties adapting to the way certain teams are structured and the resulting team dynamics.
“Are you trying to say you’re perfect and you’ve never made a mistake?”
Johnson said there’s usually a difference in what candidates bring up based on experience level. Junior developers tend to talk about languages and programming frameworks that they’re not familiar with, while more experienced developers might go into more detail about technical problems they’ve struggled with or work processes they need to improve on.
Developers can definitely prepare for the question ahead of their interview. It can help to look back on their job experience and think about aspects of work that are especially challenging. Johnson said it can be a good idea to do this periodically, regardless of whether there’s an upcoming job interview. Especially for experienced developers, this can lessen the preparation work when the time comes.
“The more experience you have, the more you should look back a little bit and ask, ‘What have I done well and what have I done poorly?’ and evaluate your experience,” Johnson said. “You should be regularly, throughout your career, thinking through that so you’ll naturally be ready.”
Ultimately, It’s About the Right Fit
It’s better to think of questions about weaknesses as not really having “right” or “wrong” answers — companies are not trying to find the candidate smart enough to come up with the best answer. Ultimately, these questions are about evaluating compatibility between the candidate and the company.
“If you’re really anti-process and anytime somebody says, ‘Well, did you check with the architect because they have to sign off on your code’ — if you hate that, that’s not a weakness, necessarily,” Johnson said. “It just means maybe they’re meant for a startup company that doesn’t have processes — we have some processes now, because we’re growing.”
And it’s just as important for the candidate to ask questions about the company’s challenges. Candidates who value specific qualities of a work environment should ask questions about what challenges the company faces day-to-day and what the working style is like to help them figure out if the company would be a good fit for them.
Johnson said he expects this, especially from experienced developers who have worked at a variety of companies and know where they thrive. For instance, some candidates value creativity and may not do well in an environment where it’s all about churning out user stories instead of allowing room for developers to innovate.
“I want them to try to understand what they’re getting into,” Johnson said. “I think it’s really about finding a match. It’s two ways. You’re starting to form a working relationship, and that’s the best chance you’ve got to try to have that little bit of balance, be a little vulnerable, and try to see if you’re fit and they’re a fit.”