Q: You recently spoke to my MSHA graduate class at UAB about dealing with the question, "What are your weaknesses?" You recommended trying to "get out of the question." However, I believe everyone has strengths as well as weaknesses. If I were interviewing someone, I would look for that person to be completely honest and upfront about what his/her potential weaknesses are. Do you ever recommend being honest and providing one or two weaknesses that you have?

A: (from J. Larry Tyler, FACHE, FHFMA, FAAHC, CMPE, Chairman and CEO) You’re right about being honest. Unfortunately, you must be careful that you: 1) don’t reveal so many weaknesses that you seem to not do anything right; and 2) don’t reveal weaknesses that might touch a nerve in the interviewer. For example, if you say that you have a problem with details, the interviewer might conclude that you’re disorganized. Or perhaps your predecessor had a problem with details that resulted in his/her termination.

Therefore, I contend that the question itself is a trap — that the interviewer doesn’t really expect to hear about your inadequacies. Those will be revealed by your references. The interviewer really is waiting to see if you are smart enough to get out of the trap. How can you extricate yourself? Don’t leave your weaknesses open to interpretation. If one of your weaknesses is impatience, then you need to clarify that statement, saying "I am impatient to make progress," or "I am impatient for results." Don’t let the interviewer assume you mean, "I am impatient in everything I do to such an extent that I even run red lights." I would suggest that the first two are really strengths in disguise (and a great way to answer!); the other response leads to disaster.

I just interviewed a great candidate whose answer to this question was excellent. He gave two answers, actually. First, he said that he doesn’t self-promote enough; he needed to let people know what he and his team were accomplishing. Second, he said he let a couple of low performers stay around too long, but he had learned his lesson. Both of these answers were outstanding and in line with what this candidate had previously told me about his strengths — working well with others and building great teams.

As for me, when someone asks, "What are your weaknesses?", I ask that person to clear their calendar while I call the people who really know my weaknesses: my wife, my children, and my co-workers. Most people don’t really want to know me that well.

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