“What is your greatest weakness?”
Nobody wants to talk about their weaknesses, much less their greatest weakness. Especially not to a potential employer.
But this is a common interview question and one that you should be well prepared for ahead of time.
Variations Of This Question
The first step is to identify the different variations of this interview question, as it can be phrased differently from one interview to the next.
- What is your biggest weakness?
- What are your 3 biggest weaknesses?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- Do you have any self-development goals?
- What would your previous employer say is an area you need to improve?
Know The “Lead Up” Questions
It’s impossible to know exactly when or even if this question will rear its head in your job interview, but there are indicators leading up to it.
Typically, the following questions will come before the “greatest weakness” question and will set a tone for the interview that will increase the likelihood of getting this particular question.
These lead up questions are:
- What is your greatest strength?
- How would you describe your personality?
- If you could be any animal, what would you be?
- Can you descrive a challenge you overcame?
- Can you describe your work ethic?
What The Interviewer Really Wants to Know
Interviewers don’t ask questions for the hell of it (well, usually). There’s almost always a reason; something they’re looking for in your answer in order to understand who you really are.
So, when an interviewer asks what your greatest weakness is, what they really want to know is:
Do You Have Any “Mission Critical” Weaknesses?
In other words, do you have any weaknesses that will directly and negatively impact your performance at the company?
For example, you may be an introvert who struggles to integrate into large teams and be vocal with your ideas — a deal-breaker in an office environment with a focus on regular team meetings and brainstorming sessions, but far less important for a driving position.
Fortunately, mission-critical weaknesses tend to steer most applicants away from unsuitable positions in the first place, so this outcome is less likely, though it does happen.
Are You Able to Identify Your Own Flaws?
You only have to spend a few minutes on Tinder to know that we human beings have mastered the art of talking ourselves up.
Being able to identify flaws in ourselves? Not so much.
The reality is, everyone has weaknesses and it only takes a little bit of self-awareness to identify what those weaknesses are.
As it happens, self-awareness is a characteristic employers value in a potential candidate, and this is exactly where you need to demonstrate it.
How Do You Handle Being Under Pressure?
This is a popular question because it never fails to throw an underprepared interviewee off-guard.
Not only do you have to think of a weakness, but you have to evaluate if it’s a good idea to share that particular weakness with a particular interviewer for a particular job.
This is when seconds can start to feel like minutes in an interview room if you haven’t come in ready for it.
How to Answer: “What Is Your Greatest Weakness”
When it comes to answering this interview question, your reply should have three crucial components:
1. Identify a Suitable Weakness
Like I said, everyone has weaknesses. If you think long and hard enough, you’ll come up with a list as long as your arm. Or you can be lazy and pick from our list below. Who’s judging?
Common weaknesses include:
- “I need to be more organized”
- “I need to learn to delegate responsibility”
- “My feedback isn’t always constructive”
- “I struggle to get my ideas across in large teams”
- “I get nervous when it comes to public speaking”
- “I could be better at dealing with numbers”
- “I sometimes fixate on problems for too long”
A few pointers:
- Framing is important. Instead of saying “I’m a messy person”, you can soften it by framing the weakness around the desired strength. In this case, you might say: “I need to be more organized”.
- Compatibility matters. You need to make sure your weakness doesn’t make you unsuitable for the role you’re applying for, so choose something that won’t detract from your ability to perform in that role.
- Authenticity wins. Choose a weakness that actually applies to you. Interviewers can often tell when someone is lying and it’s an instant turn-off. Besides, interviews can be challenging enough without trying to win an Oscar in the process.
2. Add Context with an Example
Speaking of authenticity, the best way to show that you aren’t pulling a weakness out of thin air is to provide some context.
What I mean is, tell the interviewer a story about how that specific weakness had a negative impact on you (or someone else) at one time or another.
This also shows you understand there are real-world implications to your weakness, which give more credibility to the final part of your answer.
3. Explain Your Solution
Now that you’ve directly answered the question and given a real-world example, it’s important to end your answer on a positive note.
You do this by explaining how you plan to overcome this weakness (or weaknesses, depending on the question being asked).
This is typically based on:
- More or better education
- Better decision making
- A better system
- Or just sheer practice
Bonus points if you can explain how you’ve already made progress in overcoming the weakness, prior to the interview..
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
The theory behind all this is sound, but knowing how to put it all together into a coherent answer isn’t always as straightforward.
Below are some real examples of how you might approach this age-old interview question.
Example #1: Delegating Responsibility
“I need to learn to delegate responsibility more often.
For example, as a manager at my last job, I found myself doing admin tasks because the formatting had to be done a specific way, even though they weren’t technically my responsibility.
That took time away from other tasks that would have benefited more from my attention, and I’d be lying if I said that other, more important areas of the business didn’t suffer as a result.
Before leaving that position, however, I decided to delegate someone to oversee that process. With a little upfront training, I was able to completely remove myself from those tasks.”
Example #2: Sharing Ideas in Large Teams
“I struggle to get my ideas across in large teams.
For example, I clearly remember a team meeting at a previous job where we were asked to put forward our marketing ideas.
I tried to explain an idea around podcasting that had worked for a competing company, but it was obvious the team manager didn’t fully understand the concept and the whole thing became more complicated than it needed to be.”
I think I need to be more considerate of other people’s experiences and explain concepts from their perspective, as opposed to assuming everyone has the same understanding as me.”
Example #3: Public Speaking
“I tend to shy away from public speaking.
For example, on the last day of school, students were asked to stand up and talk for a few minutes about their career goals in front of everyone.
I could barely focus on what other people were saying because I was so anxious about my turn. I thought about escaping to the bathroom and locking myself away until it was all over, but I didn’t; and I almost enjoyed it once the initial shock subsided.
Public speaking still scares me, but I know I can do it. While I don’t think I’ll ever actively seek it out, I’ve already committed to stepping up when the right opportunities present themselves.”
How NOT to Answer
As with most interview questions, you have more than one approach when it comes to answering. Let’s talk about the ones you should avoid.
The Knee-Jerk Denial
For many people, the knee-jerk response to this question is to deny having any weaknesses at all.
It usually goes something like this:
“Hmm… Weaknesses. I’m not sure I have any weaknesses. I’m a pretty well-rounded person so there’s nothing that really stands out to me.”
Not only is this an unrealistic and frankly arrogant response, but it demonstrates that you lack self-awareness or simply can’t cope under pressure. Both of which are negative traits in a potential employee.
Nobody is infallible, not even Keanu Reeves.
The Ol’ Switcheroo
The classic advice to the “greatest weakness” question is to answer with a weakness that’s actually a strength.
- “I’m too much of a perfectionist”
- “I always need to finish something once I start it”
- “I don’t allow myself to deviate from my goals”
While these sound great in theory, it’s so overused that it just doesn’t have the same impact anymore. In fact, interviewers hear these answers so often that it’s almost eye-roll inducing at this point.
Don’t try to be clever, just answer the question.
The Unforgivable Flaw
No matter what position you’re applying for, there are some weaknesses that are simply unforgivable in the hiring world because they can be seen as serious implications on your character — at least in the workplace.
These are almost like dropping the C-bomb in the middle of the job interview, except maybe 12 times worse?
It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, do NOT use any of the below answers as your weaknesses:
- “I have no time management skills”
- “I can be unreliable at times”
- “I don’t like authority”
- “I generally don’t get on well with people”
- “I have trust issues”
- “I have trouble accepting change”
Pro tip: Use any of these if you secretly don’t want the job. 😉
- Learn the different variations of this question
- Familiarize yourself with the most likely lead up questions
- Avoid answering with a mission critical weakness
- Answer with an actual weakness (don’t try to dodge the question)
- Give a real example of how that weakness has affected you
- Explain how you solved (or plan to solve) that weakness