The greatest weakness question is so easy to get wrong, but so easy to get right - if you understand what the interviewer is really looking for.
As with most things related to finding a great job, a little preparation will go a long, long way.
Read on so you can stop this tricky little question leaving you lost for words at your next interview.
Why so many interviewers ask this question
Trends have come and gone in HR, but this one is here to stay, and there is a good reason for this. Asking you to be vulnerable and open about your greatest weakness in such a high-stress situation tells an interviewer a lot about you. In fact, the way you handle it is the number one reason why they ask it.
The way you handle the greatest weakness question is the number one reason why they ask it.
The question may not always be obvious, depending on the skill of the interviewer, because it can be approached in many ways. For example, you may be asked "what would you most like to improve about yourself" or "tell me about a time when you were disappointed in your performance and what you did about it." That last one is double trouble in that it asks about weakness but is also a behavioural question too.
Don't worry though because whichever way they ask the greatest weakness question, we have it covered.
What interviewers are really looking for when asking the greatest weakness question
There are three key areas being probed when you face these types of questions; self awareness, honesty, and self improvement. Let's take each one to see what this looks like in practice.
Think of the phrase " nobody is perfect" and apply it to a work setting. They are looking for candidates who are aware of their weaknesses, own them and don't deny them, yet at the same time, they are either under control or not in direct conflict with the role they are applying for.
It is so tempting to lie about the things you know you should be open about. But don't do it. Always choose a real weakness but frame it in the way we will describe later. Remember - they are looking for integrity here. If they employ you and you make a mistake, they want you to show that you will be accountable and strive to provide a solution, not denial or an excuse.
So you have shown that you are aware of your areas you need to improve, you have been transparent and honest about it, but next, you need to show that you have the desire, knowledge, and motivation to do something about it.
The top 6 mistakes most people make
There are so many ways that people can make a real mess of the greatest weakness question but they tend to fall into one of these 6 categories.
Offering a weakness that is actually a strength
"I know I am a bit of a perfectionist. I know this means I probably work a bit too hard, but I find it so annoying if I submit less than perfect results"
If you are squirming in your seat right now, rest assured you won't be the only one. So many people opt for this because they feel it is 'safe'.
Well, here's the thing - it isn't. It just shows a lack of honesty, humility, and self-awareness.
Highlighting a weakness that is actually a bad attitude
"My weakness is that I find it hard to be motivated by boring tasks. I am very much results orientated and like to make things happen so I struggle not to switch off with mundane aspects of jobs"
Every job has boring aspects and a candidate who is already showing their unwillingness to roll their sleeves up and get on with it is a bad sign.
Choosing an unrelated weakness
"I am so scared of spiders. In fact, it is so bad that the other day I couldn't get in my car for four hours because there was a huntsman sitting on the windshield"
This is a pointless example because you are not giving the interviewer anything to work with to assess your suitability for the role in question.
NB If you are not an Australian, you may not understand the above - Google Huntsman Spider - if you dare!
Providing no example of a weakness
"I can't think of anything to be honest. Nobody has ever complained about the standard of my work and I have always brought projects in on time and under budget"
It doesn't matter who you are, nobody is perfect. Giving an answer like this shows that you are either dishonest or delusional - or both. Such traits are not going to get you the job.
Opting for a humorous weakness
"Promise not to laugh but I would have to say socks. Not just ordinary ones, but those that make me laugh and others too. I have 600 pairs at home. I have my Simpsons ones on now. Do you want to see them?"
Silly answers like this show a lack of respect for the question, and therefore the person interviewing you, and will just make you look stupid.
Giving way too much information on your weaknesses
"Well actually yes, there is something I feel I should share with you. It all started when I was 5 years old and I got lost in a huge supermarket..."
Nerves can make people waffle, and waffle, and waffle. Unfortunately, this can also mean that you bore the interviewer to tears and give away far more information that you really didn't mean to share.
The type of answers you should be giving
So now you know how you shouldn't answer "what is your greatest weakness", let's turn to what you should be saying. Before we get into specific methods and examples, here are some guidelines for you.
The secret sauce of a good response to the greatest weakness question consists of 2 vital ingredients.
The secret sauce of a good response to the greatest weakness question consists of 2 vital ingredients.
A 'suitable' weakness
It needs to be authentic, acceptable for the job in question, and something that can be fixed. The trick is to not go into too much detail and avoid sounding defensive or overly negative.
Evidence of how you are proactively working on it
A great candidate is one that is self-aware and looking to learn and grow, but the best candidate is the one that has already taken the initiative to improve.
If you use this framework, you can be open and honest but still make a good impression about your weaknesses.
How to prepare your greatest weakness answers
Start by asking yourself some general questions such as:
- What aspect or task within your current role and past roles have you not liked or struggled with?
- Think of examples where you feel that you have underperformed or failed in some way
- Regarding the above, did you find a way or ways to remedy the situation?
- Try to think of a time when a manager has pointed out an area for improvement and then later praised you for improving.
- Are there any areas where colleagues have or do regularly comment and criticise your methods or behaviour?
Remember that we are looking for those 2 vital ingredients.
Next, take a look at the job description for the position you are being interviewed for and find the section relating to the key skills and experience you need to bring to the role.
For example, the key areas of the above are:
Now go to your list and choose those weaknesses that are not essential to these requirements.
Only choose those weaknesses that are not essential to the requirements of a job description.
Pulling it all together
To help you formulate a perfect response to the greatest weakness question, the STAR method can be a great help.
If you are unfamiliar with this term, STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.
Here is how to use it to prepare your response. Take notes by hand or on a computer as you go along and then refine it afterwards.
Choose a weakness from your list that will not be in direct conflict with the job requirements. Write a brief explanation of it.
Explain how that caused difficulty with the task of your role.
Explain what measures you put in place to overcome it.
Explain how this has now been resolved or at least is on the way to being resolved. Try to use numbers and details to reinforce the impact if possible
Always prepare more than one answer
Oftentimes it will just be the one standard question, but what if it's not?
Depending on the style and experience of an interviewer, you may be asked several variations of the greatest weakness question. These can be to explore multiple areas or to make you dive more deeply into one subject.
The best thing to do is to be prepared just in case.
Here are some examples to give you an idea.
"What are some of your weaknesses?"
Clearly you need more than one here.
"What would you say are your main strengths and weaknesses?"
Some interviewers will ask these together so you need to be prepared and have the answers to your greatest strengths as well as weaknesses ready.
"If I were to call your current/previous manager, what do you think he/she would say your greatest weakness would be?"
Stand your ground. If you have worked on genuine answers it will be fine. This is often used to drag more 'honesty' out of candidates because they worry they might actually call their bosses.
"If there was one thing you would change about your work style, what would that be?"
This is just a greatest weakness question being framed in a behavioural context. If you have prepared you will be fine.
Examples of good answers to the greatest weakness question
To help you, here are some examples of strong responses to some key weaknesses. Use these to give you some inspiration and ideas for your own answers. Try to add specific numbers, stats and details to the results section of yours for added impact.
Weakness - Being too direct
“Sometimes I can be a bit too honest when I provide feedback to coworkers. Most of my colleagues really value that, but I have learned that there are times on the job when a different approach would be better.
I took a training class on conflict management and it really opened my eyes to the need to communicate differently with different people. So now I am much better at providing constructive feedback, even if it doesn’t always come naturally."
Weakness - Maintaining a work-life balance
“I love what I do and I have strong ambitions so I do find it difficult to keep a healthy balance between work and my personal life. I realise that this had in the past made a negative impact on my motivation and focus when I ignored my personal needs.
So I decided to make some changes and I have made it a point to focus on creating space in my schedule to focus on relaxation and spending time with my family. Taking small actions like putting my phone on silent during dinnertime is helpful. When I maintain a good work/life balance, I have found I can get more work done and I look forward to coming to work in the morning.”
Weakness - Asking for help
“Because I am independent and like working quickly, it used to find it hard to ask for help when I needed it. I have learned that it is much more beneficial both for me and the business to reach out when I do not understand something or feel burned out with my workload.
I realised that there are many experts around me that have specific knowledge and skills that can make my work better. I am still working on it, but I have been able to produce more high-quality work as a result of getting help from those around me.”
Weakness - Public speaking
“I would say that public speaking is an area that I could work on. I get a bit nervous when asked to present to a large group of people. In small team meetings, it's not a problem and I am normally the first one to stand up and present. But when I am in front of a big group I can get flustered.
I spoke to my manager about this and we set it as one of my development goals for this year. I took an internal presentation skills class and attended some meetings of Toastmasters. After a few sessions, I started to feel more comfortable. Last month, I even volunteered to represent our team at a division-wide town hall. I only had to present for 10 minutes, but I did it and got great feedback! It was actually kind of fun, so I plan on continuing to seek out opportunities to improve in this area.”
Weakness - Delegation
“Delegation is one area I am working on. Because I like to get everything done right and on time I tend to think “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” I’ve realized though that I can slow things down if I am too controlling and keep all tasks to myself.
I know that I can benefit from additional development in this area, so I have recently signed up for a management skills training course and my immediate boss says she has already seen a big difference in the way I work.”
Weakness - Writing skills
"I would definitely say that my writing skills could be improved. Being an engineer I have no problems describing technical issues but I feel I lack the skills in conveying other types of information.
I have actually enrolled in an online course to help me with this and it has been really useful. I feel a lot more confident sending emails now and I have even contributed to some project work that I would not have been able to do before."
Sense of humour
" I have actually got a good example from when I first joined my current company. I came from a site based role where the language was a little colourful and it was normal practice to laugh and joke with colleagues. I have had to work hard to change this way of working because the culture is very different at my new place and my co-workers found me a bit full on.
I attended some workshops though and I now understand where I was going wrong. I adjusted my work style and I have positive relationships with all my team now."
In Summary, here are the key points to remember so you won't be caught out by this tricky little question at your next interview.
- Keep in mind what interviewers are really wanting to see - self-awareness, honesty, and self-improvement
- Always prepare more than one response
- Check the key skills and requirements on the job description and only choose weaknesses that are not essential to perform the role
- Use the STAR method to organise your answers
- Practice your answers on family and friends so you are comfortable with them
- Relax! If you put in the preparation you will not be tripped up by this question