This common interview question can throw a candidate for a loop. Prepare ahead and ace the interview.

Among the possible interview questions, the greatest weakness interview question causes universal dread in most job candidates. In fact, the more qualified the candidate, the higher the degree of dread.

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Think about your own past interviews and how you may have answered this question before. If you have never been asked, think about what your response would be right now. Typical answers fall along these lines:

  • “I am a bit of a workaholic, so I have a tendency to take on too much work.”

  • “I am a perfectionist and an overachiever. I do not rest until every assignment is completed, double-checked and presented with a bow on top – ahead of schedule.”

  • “I work too hard, sometimes to the point of sacrificing rest and weekends to make sure every deadline is met.”

I am not pointing fingers at anyone in particular – in fact, I have personally been guilty of using some variation on all three of these in the past. Now, an honest round of votes: who here genuinely believes those greatest weakness interview answers?

If I were to guess, I would say that you don’t even believe them yourself as you are saying them. In fact, these are almost as bad as the worst possible answer, which is “Weakness? What’s that? I have no weaknesses!”

The problem with the typical answer.

The ultimate problem with the way most candidates answer this question is that they try to lie.

Sure, there might be a kernel of truth in these typical responses. However, the candidate usually either talks about something that is fairly inconsequential for the job (“I have a hard time disconnecting from technology in the evenings”) or picks a weakness that could be perceived as a strength (who here does not want to hire a diligent hard worker?).

Unfortunately, both strategies to tackling the greatest interview question leave the hiring manager dissatisfied. First of all, interviewers can tell when you are lying. And second, the reason they asked that question was to get some honest insight into who you are and how you deal with difficulties. Your fake answer does nothing to position you as a great candidate.

The winning answer strategy.

The key to a winning response strategy is in understanding why the hiring manager asks what are your weaknesses. There are typically two big reasons behind it.

Reason number one is to see whether you have enough self-awareness and insight to acknowledge that you have something you need to work on. Reason number two is to determine whether you are proactive and resilient enough to work on getting better. If you understand those two points and are able to answer the question honestly and thoughtfully, what you say next has the potential to lift you above other candidates and get you the job offer.  

Would you like an applied example? Let’s pretend that you are interviewing me for an accounting manager position, and you have just asked me the dreaded “What is your greatest weakness?” question. Lucky for me, I have given it some thought in advance. Here is an example of a strategic response I might say:

“That is a great question. To be honest, I tend to put deadlines and work goals ahead of people sometimes.

For example, in the last 2 years, I have noticed myself becoming terse and inflexible when my team members were unable to deliver their reports on time. I usually enjoy good rapport with my team, so those instances really stood out for me and I started to pay attention.

As I reflected on what was happening, I realized that my abruptness and lack of flexibility were actually causing a rift between me and the rest of the team. As a deadline approached, even the people who would typically come into my office to share an issue or a challenge would begin to avoid me. That was not constructive, so I sought out some guidance from my boss.

As we talked about this, I realized that I was treating all deadlines as equally urgent when in fact they were not. In a way, I was creating a lot of urgency and pressure in my own mind, and that was translating into more pressure for my team. I wanted to change this dynamic, and with my mentor’s help, I have implemented two changes.

First of all, I became a lot more present to how my demeanor and attitude towards deadlines affected my team. Deadlines are a reality of work life, but I do not want to be a major contributor to their stress just because I cannot manage myself. I started a tracking sheet of assignments by team member so that I would have a reference point for their workload. I also became proactive in asking them about progress and anticipated challenges. I found that by focusing on people I was able to open the communication lines and ultimately meet deadlines with less stress.

The second thing I did was pay attention to how senior people in the company dealt with deadlines. I have been blessed to have managers who are excellent at strategic assessment. They seem to just know which deadlines are real and not movable, and which ones are more flexible. As I learn from them and work to clarify expectations, I am getting better at the balance between getting work done and taking care of my team.”

What do you think?

Granted, I have had the benefit of a quiet space to think through my response and structure it in an impactful way. Your own answer will look different, but let’s dissect what makes this one work.

Dissecting success.

There are four factors that make my greatest weakness interview answer come across as well-composed, thoughtful and an indicator that I am a good candidate for the job.

  1. It is honest. And not just because I used that word to open the response, either! I took the time to reflect on things that have potential to sabotage my professional effectiveness and came up with a real answer that is not just a strength in disguise.

  2. It demonstrates that I have the capacity for seeing my failures. Hiring managers know that everyone has weaknesses, but it is one’s ability to recognize a shortcoming that forms the first step towards improvement.

  3. It shows that I can take proactive steps towards fixing it. We all come up against difficult things in the workplace, from an assignment not completed up to par to an email that gets a reprimand in response. The question is, do you crumble and complain about it, or do you take responsibility to fix it?

  4. It does not just tell the interviewer about my weakness – it tells a story. I brought the hiring manager along with me on a journey that had an emotional dip and a recovery. Our brains are wired to love stories, so craft a story to illustrate your point for maximum impact.

Takeaways.

There are three key points that I want you to remember as you think about this tough greatest weakness interview question.

First of all, be honest.

That does not mean blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, but rather giving it some thought and choosing something real. By all means, be strategic – after all, your goal is to position yourself as a great candidate. However, begin with an honest self-assessment.

Second, expect the question and prepare for it.

I cannot guarantee that you will get this one in your next interview, but it is one that can be difficult to answer on the spot. So, don’t put yourself on the spot. You have been warned – think through your response in advance.

Begin to do something proactive to fix your greatest weakness – before you even begin interviewing.

Depending on your personal kryptonite at the moment, working on it may involve taking a class, seeking out mentors, and asking for more just-in-time feedback. The worst thing you can do is nothing, because that leaves you with no progress to report.

So, be honest, be ready and work on fixing it – and you will be acing this tough question in no time!

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