Job Talk: Demonstrating Commitment to Growth through Honest Self-Assessment

by Brandy R. Horne

What would you consider a personal weakness, or what about yourself would you most like to improve?

Many people have difficulty answering this question during an interview. Job applicants work hard to craft an image of themselves as the perfect candidate, and the last thing they want to do is to sabotage those efforts.

However, this "weakness/improvement" question is not some sneaky attempt to initiate a candidate's self-destruct sequence. While it may seem counterintuitive, a thoughtful, honest answer to this question can highlight some of a candidate's most positive characteristics:

  • Ability to honestly self-assess
  • Commitment to self-improvement and/or professional development
  • Process for self-improvement and/or professional development
  • Awareness of work environment and consideration for others

This question can also demonstrate whether or not a candidate fully understands the nature and state of modern librarianship. In an ever-changing information landscape, the library must constantly evolve to meet user needs, and as the library evolves, so must the librarian. Librarians must be willing to learn and to try new things, but they also need to be willing and able to admit when new initiatives don't work or don't work well. Growth occurs when a person reaches for something and comes up short. If a person never acknowledges these shortcomings, then his or her potential for growth is limited. The "weakness/improvement" question allows a candidate to show that, instead of being afraid of failure, he or she is able to use these experiences to become a better librarian.

If you are in the process of preparing for a job interview, then you should give some thought to how you might handle a question like this. My suggestion would be to take advantage of this opportunity to offer some useful insight into your process for identifying and overcoming personal challenges. Taking this approach, your answer should consist of several parts:

Identify the issue you'd like to discuss. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, since we probably all have more than just one issue. The issue you identify should be:

  • Something you have learned to sufficiently manage
  • Something you can relate to the workplace

Discussing the struggle to lose weight, for example, probably won't be helpful to interviewers, and this example may give the impression that you're trying to skirt the question. Perhaps you've previously had difficulty making it to work on time, or maybe you're a procrastinator. Admitting to either of these might seem like the kiss of death, but it doesn't have to be. We all have personal shortcomings that we struggle with, but as long as we're actively taking steps to ensure these shortcomings do not negatively impact our work, then the specific issues become less important than the motivations and processes we use to overcome them.

Discuss the problems you've encountered or the potential for problems as a result of this issue. A large part of self-assessment is being able to recognize the overall impact of your behavior on your work and the workplace. For example, if you struggle with waking up in the morning, you might talk about how:

  • Running late would leave you no time to read your email upon arriving at work, and this could interfere with your ability to communicate effectively in a timely manner
  • Your colleagues would have to cover your desk time for you until you arrived, and this would place undue burden on them

Describe the changes you've made to address this issue. Simply acknowledging an issue isn't enough. You must be able to identify the root cause and some specific, actionable steps for addressing it. For example, perhaps you realized that your tendency to oversleep stemmed from staying up too late at night, and you addressed it by taking the following steps:

  • Recording your favorite television shows to watch on the weekends, so you could go to bed earlier during the week
  • Laying out clothes, and making sure your bag and keys are easy to find in the morning
  • No longer sleeping in so late on the weekends

Discuss how things have improved as a result of these changes. This part is vital. You want to show that you've not only addressed this issue, but that the steps you've taken to correct it have been successful. To do this, you might include statements like:

  • Over the last year, I've only been late a few times, mostly due to traffic or emergencies.
  • At first it was difficult to adjust to the earlier bedtime, but now if I'm not in bed by 11:00 p.m., I'm falling asleep on the couch.
  • I find that I like having more time in the morning to check my email, get some coffee, maybe chat with colleagues, and this has provided strong incentive for maintaining my current routine.

Treating the "weakness/improvement" question as an opportunity to discuss your process for self-improvement, rather than a moment of solemn confession, makes the whole interview experience far less dreadful.

Even if you don't get the "weakness/improvement" question during your interview, the interviewers may have you talk about specific experiences, such as:

  • A time you had to deal with a difficult patron/colleague/supervisor
  • A project you worked on as part of a team (either successful or not)
  • A situation where your time management skills failed you

In these cases, the same basic approach applies. Your answer should consist of several parts and may include the following:

  • A description of the situation, along with what worked and/or what didn't
  • How you measured success
  • What you learned

Avoid simply giving your interviewers a factual recounting of the experience. You want to demonstrate, through your answer, that you have the ability to learn from negative experiences, and that you can and will use that information to continue evolving as a librarian.

Good luck!

Brandy R. Horne is an Instruction/Reference Librarian at the University of South Carolina Aiken, and she is currently co-coordinator of the NMRT Resume Review email service.