Let me address one of the most common and aggravating interview questions of them all: What is your greatest weakness?
Are you rolling your eyes? Most candidates hate this question and consider it pointless. After all, they aren’t about to confess candidly to their biggest flaws in the middle of a job interview.
However, this question has become a cliché for a reason. Interviewers continue to ask it even though they know they are unlikely to get answers that are 100% honest.
Why? Because the way you answer a question about your weaknesses is very telling. You may not even realize what you are communicating when you answer this question.
And let’s face it, you’re probably doing it wrong. Most people do. I say that as an interviewer and interviewee. Most of my friends need help with answering the weakness question.
Here are the usual methods that people try to take to address the question.
1. Trying to turn a negative into a positive.
You’ll find many books and articles that advise you to “turn a negative into a positive” by sharing a supposed weakness that is actually a desirable quality in an employee. A few examples:
- I am too much of a perfectionist.
- I work too hard sometimes.
- I care too much about my work.
Clever idea. At this point, though, it’s an old trick and the interviewer sees right through it. She has seen many candidates try the same song and dance. In fact, this approach may make her think you are hiding something.
2. Refusing to answer the question.
Some candidates will assert that they can’t think of a single weakness. This is probably because they don’t prepare for the question properly and freeze up, afraid to say the wrong thing. This answer also makes you look like you are hiding something.
3. Revealing a weakness that raises red flags.
Another mistake is to be too candid and confess to a weakness that would hinder your ability to excel in the role. I once had a coaching client answer, “I have trouble getting up in the morning and getting to work on time.” His real weakness was that he was way too honest.
Here are some of the different weakness questions that are regularly asked in job interviews:
- What is your greatest weakness?
This is probably the most common phrasing.
- What are some of your weaknesses?
Here you are being asked for more than one. The interviewer knows you have that one B.S. weakness prepared and wants to push you for more (see also: follow-up questions below)
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Some interviewers will ask you to sum up both strengths and weaknesses in one answer.
- If I called your current/previous manager, what would he/she say that you need to work on?
This phrasing is tricky. By planting the idea of calling your current/last manager, the interviewer is trying to subconsciously encourage more honesty (Some candidates immediately start thinking, “What if he actually calls her?”)
- Tell me about a development goal that you have set.
This question probes for weakness, but also emphasizes your ability to proactively set development goals.
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Here’s another phrasing — again asking for your GREATEST weakness or at least the one that you feel is most limiting.
- What do you most want to improve in the next year?
This phrasing takes a more positive approach, but it is still a question about weaknesses.
So why do interviewers ask about weaknesses when they know that most candidates don’t answer honestly? They’re trying to get past your nice, presentable interview facade and get a sense of what you’re really like to work with — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Even if you don’t answer honestly, your answer tells them something about you. If you dodge the question or try to fake your way through, the interviewer will wonder if:
- You’ve got scary secret weaknesses that you won’t discuss.
- You think you’re perfect because you have no self-awareness.
- You think you’re perfect because your standards are very low.
- You’re a con artist.
Meanwhile, you’re nervous and thinking about 1,000 other things (Is my hair sticking up? Is my breath okay? Why did he just frown like that? What am I going to say if he asks why I left my last job? How am I going to remember that teamwork example? Can he tell that I’m sweating?)
However, there is a way to answer that is honest and authentic and still increases your odds of getting a job offer.So here we go:
A good weakness answer has two important parts:
Part 1) Your weakness
Briefly describe a real weakness that wouldn’t be a major handicap on the job (Read on for how to choose a “good” weakness)
Part 2) How you are already working on it
Part 2 is a critical component. Discuss your proactive efforts to improve. This shows that you are self-aware, have the drive to be your best and that the weakness will not slow you down.
Part 1: How to Choose a “Good” Weakness
a) Be authentic.
Don’t select a weakness just because it sounds good. You will make a better impression with sincerity. That doesn’t mean you have to share a weakness that makes you look bad. If you’re like most of us, you have several weaknesses and at least one of them will be interview-friendly as defined by the additional guidelines below.
b) Pick a weakness that is acceptable for the job at hand.
Be aware of the job requirements and don’t cite a weakness related to any of the required skills or desired qualities. If you’re an accountant, don’t talk about hating math or lack of attention to detail. If you’re in sales, don’t confess to being too reserved or lacking persistence.
c) Select a weakness that is relatively minor and “fixable.”
By fixable, I mean it’s something you can improve through work and motivation
Fixable: “I get nervous when speaking in front of large groups.”
(You can get better through practice and learning new skills — and this is a common development area.)
Harder to fix: “I am very shy and often have trouble speaking up in meetings.”
(While there’s nothing wrong with being shy, an interviewer could assume that the candidate would have trouble collaborating in a team environment. This is a preference or personality quality that would be more difficult to change.)
d) Describe your weakness in a concise, neutral way.
Don’t feel like you have to go into great detail. Be brief and, most importantly, avoid sounding defensive or overly negative.
Part 2: How to Demonstrate That You Are Working on Your Weakness
In the second part of your answer, you need to describe how you have already taken steps to improve in your area of weakness. This one is important to highlight as a great candidate is always looking for ways to learn and grow. A fabulous candidate then takes the initiative to improve. Use your answer to demonstrate your motivation to be the best at what you do. This is how to truly emphasize the positive when talking about your weakness.
So What Is Your Weakness? Share your weaknesses or your experiences with the weakness question in interviews.
Check out my related post: How to do better at a job interview?