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What’s your biggest weakness?

That’s a difficult if not terrifying question to have to answer in a job interview. But it’s almost certain to be asked at some point in your job search. So expect it (rather than hope it won’t come up). Plan for it.

And here’s how to answer it, according to Scot Herrick, who owns the Cube Rules career site:

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  • You must first focus on something you needed to improve in the past.
  • Then explain how you accomplished that improvement.

He stresses avoiding the most common paths people take in handling the question, which inevitably fail. First, they try to turn one of their strengths into a weakness, like working too hard. Also ineffective is using a personal weakness rather than a professional one or picking a professional weakness that is irrelevant to the job you are applying for.

Instead, pick an actual weakness – but one that you have improved. “Tell it in the form of a story – that it had been a problem for you at work, that you identified the problem, and that you took steps to improve the situation, and that it is no longer a problem for you,” he writes. Try to close the story with something like this: “And in fact, I am always looking for different ways to improve myself.”

Instead of wiggling around like a fish caught on a baited hook with feeble answers that avoid naming a real weakness, you have smoothly addressed one that is no longer a weakness and through it shown an openness to accept constructive criticism and improve yourself.

“The weakness question is about your self-awareness and how you handle challenges,” he notes. Planning a response in this vein answers what’s behind the weakness question without raising any doubts about your current capabilities.

Here are three other tough questions, and his advice for answering them:

  • “What did you like least about your last job?”: Be careful here not to go negative. That will suggest you are a whiner. So don’t complain about your current or former manager, current or former team of co-workers, or the company. Instead, focus on you and what you want in a position; how the current job isn’t providing it any more; and how you feel the new job will. For example: “The last job helped me develop handling medium projects, but now I want to move to even larger sized projects with more responsibility.” Message: The last job was good but this will be better.
  • “What did you like least about your last supervisor?”: Again, keep this from being negative or personal by focusing on management styles. Describe in a factual, nonemotional way how your supervisor practised management of employees. Then explain how this differs from the way you like to be managed to produce your best work. Now, describe how you adjusted to work well together. “Showing how you adapt is a key way to show that you can work with the new manager and your new co-workers. It shows you being a flexible person and one that is willing to change to match up in a different environment,” he notes.
  • “What job gave you the most personal value?:” Remember the interviewer really doesn’t care about how cool the job was and how much you loved it but how you will help him or her to achieve their business results in future. So make sure in your answer you indicate how you increased your job skills and/or capacity to handle work and how your work helped the organization.

Quick hits

  • Blogger James Clear says the surest way to prevent yourself from learning a topic is to believe you already know it.
  • If your resolutions for the New Year are faltering, here is the best way to make a habit stick according to a study of 23 different techniques: Habit formation. Pick a past situation where you were able to successfully change your long-term behaviour or create a new habit. Write down anything you learned from that incident about how to build new habits, or tactics that assisted. Finally, create a brief written plan for applying those lessons to the new goal
  • If you can’t make a decision, Microsoft systems analyst Rashan Dixon advises you to consider “What opportunities might I unlock by making this decision?” and “What are the consequences if I don’t make this decision?”
  • Your poker face is better than you think, says blogger Shane Parrish. Most of the time other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling, in part because they are too wrapped up in themselves. Our emotions are not written all over our faces all the time.
  • Marketing consultant Roy H. Williams says we tend to subscribe to one of these two contradictory cognitive biases: “Cause and effect,” which assumes an organized universe that can be predicted with certainty if we have enough data, and “you can’t know for certain until you get there,” which is the world of improvisation and working with what comes up. Both systems can be effective he says. Moreover, keep in mind you will never convince a practitioner of the system opposite from yours that they are stupid or foolish.

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