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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Accentuate the Positives of Negatives

BY TERI ROBINSON
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You may have excellent attributes, an admirable track record and unimpeachable references but when you go into a job interview, inevitably you will be asked the dreaded question: "What is your weakest point?" Rarely do any of us straightaway spit out the thing we have the most trouble with, be it tardiness, snappishness, fear of confrontation, procrastination, problems with authority or the like. After all, revealing too much might just land you out in the hall on your ear or on some more substantial body part.

But playing it too close to the vest or trying to be cagey with your response might produce the same results. So, many of us couch a positive trait as a negative, as I did in response to my friend's question, hoping that the prospective takes the bait. Turning a positive into a negative is not a bad strategy if you aren't too transparent about it.

"Saying you are an over-achiever or have too high expectations for yourself" will seem like a positive to a prospective employer because they are desirable traits in the workplace although "they do interfere with your personal life," says John O'Connor, vice president and regional manager of the Detroit region at Kelly Services.

Laura Harlow, finance and payroll manager at Woodside Employment Consultants in Washington, D.C., agrees. If you're applying for a non-retail job, you could easily say something along the lines of "I can't stand for really long periods of time." Harlow and O'Connor both claim that honesty is the best policy but that doesn't mean you have to highlight a trait that's roundly unattractive to everyone. Harlow contends that rather than say something like, "Well I'm always late because I can't get out of bed in the morning," opt for a trait such as, "I try to take too much on my plate," or "I need to be more oriented toward goals, rather than tasks." Another trait to highlight might be that "because you wear many hats in your current job, you find it hard to focus more specifically on what aspect of a job you like to do best," says Harlow.

Another strategy involves producing a trait that's a negative, but for another kind of position altogether. In the new Woody Allen movie Match Point, lead character Chris, while interviewing for a job as a tennis pro, cited a lack of interest in travel, a trait that restricted him in the professional tennis circuit where he once operated but would make him more appealing to a country club, which would want him to stay close by to meet the needs of its valued members.

Most job seekers know the worst trait question is coming but still go into an interview unprepared to answer it, a curious phenomenon when it would only take a small effort to sit down and think seriously about which negative is best to bring up during an interview.

To some extent, that means really understanding the job you're applying for and the company that is offering it: know if the position you're applying for suits both your skill set and experience, notes O'Connor. That will at the very least minimize the traits that might not be appropriate for a particular job. But if you truly understand what the position entails, it is easier to come up with a negative that won't offend or ruin your chances of getting the job.

Then show the prospective employer that you have a strategy for turning that negative, if not into a positive, then into a force that can be overcome. If you claim to be more task- rather than goal-oriented then demonstrate how you can hone your focus. If your problem is that you're not sure what aspect of your current job you are best suited to or enjoy the most, then be able to speak intelligently about how the position your applying for would let you focus on the responsibilities you believe you are best qualified for and really enjoy. "You need to have a game plan," Harlow stresses. Given the dead air that generally follows that question about a job seeker's worst trait, an employer, too, might just be impressed enough that you're grappling with your negatives to offer you the job. "We all have weaknesses and half the battle is identifying them," says O'Connor.


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