It is impossible nowadays to attend an interview for any role or organisation without being asked about your strengths and weaknesses. Yet it is often seen as one of the most difficult questions to answer and can be framed in several different ways:
- What are your natural strengths?
- How would friends or colleagues describe you?
- Which is your greatest strength?
- We all have weaknesses, tell me about one of yours?
When approaching these types of questions, it can greatly help to know the reason why they are being asked.
Firstly, the interviewer is assessing how self-aware you are. Self-awareness is linked to interpersonal skills and is likely to indicate how well you work with others. Your response may also demonstrate how open you are to feedback at work and your own growth mindset. The interviewer is also interested in getting to know you and they want to understand more about your personality type and how well you would fit with their team and the company culture.
The Civil Service puts an even greater emphasis on strength questions. They assess candidates on 36 strengths, which can be applied to any role and at any level within the Civil Service. Under their Success Profiles framework, they believe that a candidates’ natural strengths will determine both their performance at work and their motivation.
Different organisations will assess strengths in varying ways, for example through situational tests, simulation assessments, personality tests and at interview. So how can you prepare for strength-based questions at an interview?
A good way to approach this is to think about what you do regularly, what you do well and what motivates and energises you at work. Look back at some of your professional successes; which skills or personality traits do you think might have facilitated your success at those activities? Were you highly organised, flexible, open minded or a team player who could build consensus, or are you a natural networker? Here are some strength ‘profiles’ to think about:
- Problem solver
Once you have pinpointed a relevant strength, then you need to back it up with a concrete example of when you demonstrated it from your recent personal, or ideally professional, experience. For instance, if you identify that one of your greatest strengths is dependability, then you must support this with an example of how, in a moment of crisis with a tight deadline to meet, you managed to deliver a project or task while simultaneously juggling other multiple priorities. Your example should of course demonstrate that you did not hesitate to put in extra time to complete the project at hand.
Review the job description first to ensure that the interviewer or hiring manager is going to value your strengths and then ideally prepare three examples. For instance, if you are applying for a role as a project manager then it will be of paramount importance to show that you are highly organised and able to work with a wide range of stakeholders who might have different agendas.
Sometimes, candidates find the most difficult question is the one which asks you to identify your weaknesses. It may surprise you to learn that the interviewer is less interested in the weakness itself and more interested in assessing your self-awareness and growth mindset. Cliched weaknesses such as ‘I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘I can’t say no and therefore take on too much work’ are not advisable. You do not need to turn a weakness into a positive. However, be sensible: If you are applying for a role as a project manager you do not want to intimate that you struggle to cope with multiple priorities under pressure. A good answer is to focus on a genuine weakness which you have worked to minimise by some form of self-improvement, such as one-to-one mentoring, shadowing or an educational course. Ideally, share an example which shows how you have applied your newly learned skills.
If you don’t know what your weaknesses are then a good technique is to think about which circumstances drain your energy or make it difficult for you to stay focused at work. Which task were you doing at the time which made you feel this way? For example, if you don’t enjoy tasks such as proofreading documents or data analysis then attention to detail might be a weakness. Or perhaps you are someone who does not enjoy conflict and tries to avoid it. While this might seem like a positive trait it can also be viewed as a weakness if it demonstrates you are someone who doesn’t have the courage to speak up and are unable to challenge thinking because you want to avoid potential conflict. If this were your weakness, you would want to demonstrate how you have learned to listen to others and realise that having a different perspective can help with problem solving and innovation. You would want to give an example where you had challenged a colleague’s perspective respectfully and communicated openly. The worst answer you can give in an interview is to say that you don’t have any weaknesses!
Objectively analysing your strengths and weaknesses will help you to be ready to answer these questions in an interview and will demonstrate self-awareness with a mindset to grow and develop.