Many of us have been there: You're in an interview, doing fairly well, when the interviewer asks you that dreaded question:
"What's your biggest weakness?"
In an effort to avoid mentioning your actual biggest weakness, whatever it may be, you turn to what sounds like a good answer: "I'm a perfectionist."
But unfortunately, this common, made-to-please response comes across as inauthentic at worst and lacking self-awareness at best. Saying you're obsessed with perfection is about as believable as saying your biggest flaw is always getting to work early.
"Such a person is likely to be lying," said Peter Cappelli, a management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "They are thinking about something to say that is safe -- plausible but also not negative."
And if you actually were a perfectionist, there's no way you'd give this answer, experts say. People who really hold themselves to impossibly high standards spend plenty of time 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, who writes the popular blog Evil HR Lady.
“Real perfectionists have a degree of self-awareness that enables them to understand who they are and what they’re trying to improve,” said Josh Budway, vice president of talent acquisition at Medallia, a technology company focused on customer experience management.
He added that the perfectionist answer has more to do with “being uncomfortable with being yourself and being authentic in front of others.”
Another reason for “perfectionist” fibbers to avoid this interview answer is that actual perfectionism doesn't always produce perfect results. Real perfectionists know this all too well. While many perfectionists are high-achievers, they can also struggle with fear of failure and black-and-white thinking, which can lead to procrastination, refusal 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 good answer to the 'worst quality' question?
Budway said he looks for complete honesty about the weakness, an understanding of how the person became aware of it and some context around efforts 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 impressed by a recent candidate who revealed that he had gotten feedback from supervisors that he was not a strong communicator. The candidate went on to say he had registered for a Toastmasters class, which helps people hone speaking and leadership skills, and volunteered for speaking opportunities at work.
To figure out your own unique answer to this question, spend time really thinking about some of your weaknesses at work and how you could improve them. Then act on some of those strategies, and you'll have a solid "biggest weakness" response ready for your next interview.
Approached from a sincere perspective, a real negative can actually work as a positive. Budway said he has never felt a candid response about a flaw reflected badly on a candidate.