Tough Job Interview Question: “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”
Three Tips for Answering This One
Why Do Interviewers Ask About My Weaknesses?
No interviewer expects “brutally honest answers like,’I'm below-average intelligence and difficult to work with,’” says a hiring expert quoted by the Washington Post.
So why do they ask this tough job interview question? “The intent of this question is to throw you off course,” says EmploymentDigest.net. Many positions require workers to think on their feet, and interviewers want to know if interviewees can do that.
There’s another, less confrontational reason for asking this interview question, according to the Washington Post:
[I]nterviewers say that even skewed answers can help reveal whether applicants possess key qualities such as self-awareness, humility, sincerity, zest, and skill in managing shortcomings and mistakes.
Of course, not every hiring manager wants to talk about candidates’ weaknesses. In November 2008, paylocity’s Tim Stall wrote in Net Developer’s Journal:
“If the interviewer cannot determine your weaknesses from normal interview questions, are they really weaknesses? It is part of the recruiter’s job to determine your weaknesses, and by directly asking you, they’re essentially asking you to do their job for them.”
But since there’s no way of knowing beforehand whether our interviewer likes or loathes this tough job interview question about weaknesses, job seekers must be ready with an answer.
Tough Interview Question About Weakness Results in Conflicting Advice
Writing from Dublin, Ireland in 2006, Fortify Services founder Rowan Manahan sums up how it can feel to be confronted with one of the toughest interview questions, “What is your greatest weakness?”:
[I]t’s no wonder people dread job interviews. There you are in your best interview suit, with your shiniest shoes on, doing your best to sound credible, professional and enthusiastic and all the interviewer wants to do is lift up stones and see what crawls out.”
It’s hard enough that the “What is your greatest weakness?” question definitely puts you on the spot. Worse is that at least two prominent sources have offered somewhat conflicting advice on how to answer an interviewer who has lifted up that stone to see “what crawls out.”
Vault.com, for example, says in an undated article on the topic that, “Some HR managers suggested the old approach of naming a fault that’s not a fault”:
“I am impatient, and I like to get things done and done quickly and get frustrated when politics and red tape slow down projects,” was how a recruiting and staffing manager for a Florida-based trucking company answered.
(Or there’s always the classic line: “My weaknesses are that I’m a workaholic and perfectionist.”)
However, this February 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal wastes no time dispelling that advice:
Worldwide Panel LLC, a small market-research firm, is getting flooded with resumes for four vacancies in sales and information technology.
However, officials expect to reject numerous applicants after asking them: “What is your greatest weakness?” Candidates often respond “with something that is not a weakness,” say[s] Christopher Morrow, senior vice president of the Calabasas, Calif., concern. “It is a deal breaker.”
Three Tips for Answering the Tough Job Interview Question “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”
What’s a job-seeker to do? The following three tips will help you not only answer this tough job interview question, but also take stock of the things you might want to work on improving in your next job.
- Take a good look at yourself.
This is where the old axiom, “Know Thyself” comes in.
Look at those things you prevaricate and procrastinate on. Items you consistently shy away from doing. … Those parts of your job that you just don’t enjoy, feel inadequate performing, or know in your heart of hearts that others do better.
What about something for which you would love to get training — to make that sense of inadequacy go away?
Build a list of these Achilles’ heels.Think about things that used to be a problem for you in the past, but in which you have gained a measure of confidence now. Look at how you gained that confidence or redressed the problem. These insights will form the nucleus of your answer.
- Research the company“Learn as much as you can about the employer you are interviewing with,” says EmploymentDigest. Tools like LinkedIn may well be able to connect you with information about the person with whom you’ll be interviewing, and you can use other online tools to pick up important tips about the company’s culture.
At the very least, “If you know who you’re dealing with, you will be less likely to become uneasy during the interview process.” At best, this information can give you clues as to the best ways to frame your answer. Weaknesses that would truly be problematic in other company cultures may be viewed as unimportant or even as strengths.
For example, having experienced difficulty managing subordinates in the authoritarian, military-discipline style expected at a prior job may be an asset at a company that prides itself on a softer touch and a more egalitarian and participatory management style.
- Tell your story of how you overcame or are addressing this weakness.We have already covered the effectiveness of answering, “Tell me about yourself” with a story.
A story answer that truthfully describes not only one of your weaknesses, but also how you’ve responded to it is a perfect fit for this question as well.
For example, if you had difficulty with a particular task in your last job, but sought out training and/or worked at that task until you improved your performance, your interviewer will be impressed with your initiative and dedication — and it’s a decided bonus if that particular skill or knowledge is necessary for the job for which you’re interviewing.
One executive interviewed by the Washington Post said that she “has impressed hiring managers by revealing that her inclination to quickly complete projects can cause errors, so she double-checks and proofreads all her work.”