How NOT to Answer the Weakness Question

March 23rd, 2009 by lewis

I don’t like it when my clients respond to the greatest weakness question with “I spend too much time trying to make things too perfect.” From my experience as a hiring manager, most employees (and even interviewees) don’t put in effort and give up too easily. To sum it up, I want prospective employees to do the opposite of what my clients often suggest; I want them to spend more time trying to make things perfect.

Why is perfect important? John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, implies in Bob Sutton’s article, if it wasn’t for their high quality standards, Pixar wouldn’t have made beautiful films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E. And conversely because Disney Animation studios did not have a high quality bar, they made “dull movies.”

So what’s the right way to address the weakness interview question? In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how Barack Obama handled the biggest weakness question during a Katie Couric interview. I’ve included the dialogue below for reference. What I like about Obama’s response is that he acknolwedges that being thorough (aka perfect) is a strength. However, he never says that being perfect is undesirable. Instead, he calls out a potential problem with being perfect — being indecisive. And he’s assuaged Couric that indecisiveness is not a problem for him, that he’s able to “make the call quickly and surely.”

I like this response. Obama hasn’t compromised his principles. He still strives for high quality work. But he’s aware of the problem of being perfect and has figured out a way to address it.

Katie Couric: What one personal flaw do you think might hinder your ability to be president?

Barack Obama: I don’t think there’s … a flaw that would hinder my ability to function as president. I think that all of us have things we need to improve. You know, I said during the primary that my management of paper can sometimes be a problem.

Couric: You can come up with something better than that, though, can’t you?

Obama: I just use it as an example of something that I’m constantly tryin’ to work on. What is often a strength can be a weakness. So, you know, for me there are times where I want to think through all our options. At some point you’ve gotta make sure that we’re making a decision. So far, at least I’ve proven to be pretty good about knowing when that time is.

I think, as president, with all the information that’s coming at you constantly, you’re never gonna have 100 percent information. And you’ve just gotta make the call quickly and surely. And I think … that’s a capacity that I’ve shown myself to have.

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