Most of us have been there: in the middle of an interview, just when everything seems to be going well, the interviewer asks “What’s your biggest weakness?”
Of course we all want to avoid mentioning our actual biggest flaw – whatever that may be (arrogance, irritability, laziness – and so we opt for what seems like the most strategic response: “I’m a perfectionist.”
However, this common, made-to-please answer comes across as insincere (at worst) or incapable of self-reflection (at best). Claiming that you’re obsessed with perfection is about as credible as saying your biggest weakness is always arriving to work early.
“Such a person is likely to be lying,” says Peter Cappelli, management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “They are thinking about something to say that is safe — plausible but also not negative.”
And an actually perfectionist, would never give this answer anyway, according to experts. Those who genuinely hold themselves to extremely high standards put a lot of time into reflecting on their shortcomings.
“People who say perfectionism is their problem tend to not be perfectionists, rather people who are trying to do the whole ‘positive as a negative’ trick,” said Suzanne Lucas, creator of the popular blog Evil HR Lady. Josh Budway, vice president of talent acquisition at Medallia (a technology firm specializing in customer experience management) reiterates this point: “Real perfectionists have a degree of self-awareness that enables them to understand who they are and what they’re trying to improve,” he explains. Moreover, he notes that this generic perfectionist answer is a bigger indicator of someone “being uncomfortable with being yourself and being authentic in front of others.”
Another reason to avoid this interview response — even if it happens to be true – is that actual perfectionism doesn’t always produce “perfect” outcomes. While a good number of perfectionists are certainly high-achieving rock-stars, many also struggle with fear of failure and are prone to black-and-white thinking, which contributes to procrastination and paralysis, reluctance to take risks, and other self-defeating behaviors.
“True perfectionism is a terrible quality,” Lucas said. “A true perfectionist is never satisfied with her own work or anyone else’s either. It turns into a nitpicky mess and things are never done. As a result of perfectionism, you end up with a lot of failure when good enough would have been great. Missed deadlines, and the like.”
So what’s a better answer to the ‘worst quality’ question?
Budway (the VP of talent acquisition at Medallia) is impressed with complete honesty about a candidate’s weakness, and looks for an introspective understanding of how that worker came to acknowledge it along with some thought about ways to improve.
“If you put those three things in place, you get the perspective of someone who’s very mature, learns from their day-to-day actions and is thoughtful about how they’re going to become better,” he said.
Budway said he was surprised and pleased by a recent candidate who admitted that he had gotten feedback from supervisors that he was a poor communicator. The interviewee then explained that he’d registered for a Toastmasters course, to hone his speaking and leadership skills, and signed up for different speaking opportunities at work and beyond.
To determine your own unique response to this question, spend time really considering some of your professional shortcomings, as well as how you could improve on them. Then take concrete action on your strategies, which will give you an impressive “biggest weakness” response to use in your next interview.
When tackled from a place of sincerity, a genuine negative can actually work in your favor. Budway said he has never seen a thoughtfully candid response about a flaw turn out badly for a candidate.