Admit it. You've conducted at least one job interview and asked the candidate, "What is your biggest weakness?" And if you haven't asked the question, you've definitely been asked that question at least once when you were the candidate.

In most cases it's a waste of time. Every candidate knows how to answer the question: Just pick a theoretical weakness, and magically transform that flaw into a strength!

For example: "My biggest weakness is getting so absorbed in my work that I lose all track of time. Every day I look up and realize everyone has gone home! I know I should be more aware of the clock, but when I love what I'm doing I get so absorbed...."

So your "biggest weakness" is that you'll put in more hours than everyone else? Huh.

 

Here are a few more things you're not looking for:

 
 

 

  • "I'm a can-do person and tend to take on too much."
  • "I'm too much of a perfectionist."
  • "I work long hours because I just can't say no when other people ask me for help."
  • "I need to find a better work-life balance, but it's hard because I love getting things done."

Most candidates play the "my weakness is actually a strength" card, claiming that they take a good quality a little -- or a lot -- too far.

As an interviewer, what kind of answer do you hope to hear? What are you looking for?

Most of us want to hear about an actual weakness. No one is perfect. And while it's too much to ask that the candidate has a weakness he or she can't seem to overcome -- if I'm answering, that would be my tendency to be snarky, or to procrastinate, or to get fixated on one thing to the exclusion of other things that are just as important, or (yep, my list goes on and on) -- we're fine if the candidate shares a weakness they are actively working to improve.

And that's the best you can hope for if you ask that question.

As a candidate, how should you answer? The best approach is to choose an actual weakness that you're actively working to improve. Share what you're doing to overcome that weakness. No one is perfect, so show you're willing to honestly self-assess and then seek ways improve.

Still -- if you're the interviewer, how much did you really learn by asking that question? Not much.

To gain insight into how a candidate overcomes a challenge or mistake, quit asking, "What is your biggest weakness?" and ask one of these questions instead:

1. "Tell me about the last time a customer or co-worker got mad at you."

Purpose: Evaluate the candidate's interpersonal skills and ability to deal with conflict.

Make sure you find out why the customer or co-worker was mad, what the interviewee did in response, and how the situation turned out both in the short- and long-term.

Warning sign: The interviewee pushes all the blame and responsibility for rectifying the situation on the other person.

Decent sign: The interviewee focuses on how they addressed and fixed the problem, not on who was to blame.

Great sign: The interviewee admits they caused the other person to be upset, took responsibility, and worked to make a bad situation better. Great employees are willing to admit when they are wrong, take responsibility for fixing their mistakes, and learn from experience.

Remember, every mistake is really just training in disguise... as long as the same mistake isn't repeated over and over again, of course.

2. "Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last six months."

Purpose: Evaluate the candidate's reasoning ability, problem solving skills, judgment, and possibly even willingness to take intelligent risks.

Warning sign: No answer. Everyone makes tough decisions, regardless of their position. My daughter works part-time as a server at a local restaurant and makes difficult decisions all the time - like the best way to deal with a regular customer whose behavior constitutes borderline harassment.

Decent sign: Made a difficult analytical or reasoning-based decision. For example, wading through reams of data to determine the best solution to a problem.

Great sign: Made a difficult interpersonal decision, or better yet a difficult data-driven decision that included interpersonal considerations and ramifications.

Making decisions based on data is important, but almost every decision has an impact on people as well. The best candidates naturally weigh all sides of an issued not just the business or the human side.