How to Answer, "How Do You Compensate for Your Weaknesses?"

One of the most dreaded interview questions of all time has got to be, “What are your weaknesses?” But some employers are upping the ante and asking an even tougher version of the question: “How do you compensate for your weaknesses?”

Like the original question, its big sister is designed to find out several things:

  • Whether you’ve prepared for the interview and have an answer ready
  • Whether you’re capable of introspection and feedback
  • Whether you can realistically assess your own abilities
  • Whether you’ll be honest or make up an answer that tries to pass off a strength as a weakness
  • Whether there are any glaring gaps in your core competencies or leadership skills that would hinder your ability to do the job

The updated version doesn’t stop there, however. Your potential employer also wants to find out if you’ve done anything to fix it. Knowing about a weakness but not taking any steps to improve can be a red flag for a lot of employers. So there are really two parts to this question: identifying a weakness and describing how you’re compensating for it. Let’s take those one at a time.

Identifying a weakness

Answering this question takes some finesse. Most recruiters and hiring managers have heard the answer, “I’m too loyal” so many times that you may immediately doom your chances if you say that. Pick a real weakness, but choose one that’s not critical to the job’s core competencies. If you were applying for a writing job, for example, you wouldn’t want to say, “I’m a horrible speller.” Instead you may say something like, “I don’t type as quickly as I would like to.” Or, if you were applying for a management role, you could say something like, “I don’t always pick up on subtle or indirect signals.” 

Explaining how you compensate

This is the critical part. Your interviewer is looking for specific actions you’ve taken or are taking to compensate for your weakness. In other words, they don’t expect you to be perfect, but neither do they expect you to be complacent about your imperfection.

In the example about the writing job and your slow typing speed, you could say something like, “I’ve taken a couple of online typing courses, and I’ve improved my speed by 15 words per minute over the past few weeks.” In the example about the management role and your difficulty in picking up subtle cues, you could say something like, “I’ve read several books on interpersonal messages and non-verbal communication, and I realized that I was overly focused on the content of the message so that I could formulate my response. I got the facts, but I missed the point. Since then, I’ve made a real effort to be more patient and make sure I’m getting all aspects of the message: tone of voice, facial expression, body language, etc. I also try to notice the interpersonal styles of the people I work with. If I realize that one of my colleagues prefers indirect speech, I’ll make sure I’m listening for the intent and not just the words.” 

When you break interview questions down into what your prospective employer really wants to know, answering becomes a lot easier. The key to answering, “How do you compensate for your weaknesses?” is to assure your interviewer that you’re introspective and objective enough to recognize your own weaknesses and that you’re constantly trying to improve on those weaknesses.


 image: flickr via Bill Strain, 2010