The question ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ can trip up even confident interviewees. While you’re in the middle of extolling your skills and presenting your very best side to a potential employer, being asked to talk about your biggest shortcoming can stop you in your tracks.
But as much as you may want to focus on your positive points, questions that encourage a candidate to talk about weakness are popular in interviews. This is in part because they are so hard to answer well, and how an interviewee responds can reveal so much.
Answering a question about your greatest weakness involves striking a balance. You must be honest – if you try to avoid revealing any genuine weaknesses you will come across as arrogant or deluded. But you don’t want to be so honest that you talk yourself out of a job. The best answers show that you are aware of your own shortcomings and, crucially, that you are taking positive steps to address areas where you need to improve.
Responding well to an interview question about your greatest weakness also shows that you can remain calm under pressure. The best way to remain calm is to be well prepared; read on to find out how to turn this question to your advantage. And remember that the greatest weakness question is often posed alongside one about strengths, so prepare an answer for that too.
- Why Do Interviewers Want to Know About Your Greatest Weakness?
- Typical Mistakes
- How to Get It Right
- The STAR Method
- Examples of Strong Answers
- Other Interview Questions That Focus on Weaknesses
- Follow-up Questions
- Key Points to Remember
- Further Reading
Why Do Interviewers Want to Know About Your Greatest Weakness?
To answer the greatest weakness question well, it is important to understand why interviewers ask it. While they want you to give an honest answer – which we will cover in more detail later – they are more interested in how you answer the question than what your answer is.
Employers are well aware that candidates are trying to present their very best selves in the interview room. The greatest weakness question is useful because it helps interviewers get past that facade and gain an insight into what you are really like and how you would be to work with. How candidates answer this question can be very revealing and may communicate much more than the interviewee intended.
Of course, when an interviewer asks about your greatest weakness, they want to check that you don’t have any major flaws that would hinder your ability to do the job. But they might also ask this question to:
- assess your level of self-awareness;
- see if you can identify areas where you might be able to improve;
- delve deeper into your personality;
- see if you have taken the initiative to address your weakness;
- test your ability to remain calm under pressure.
Because this question can be such a hard one to answer well, many candidates try to find a way around it. Other candidates become too candid or get sidetracked by talking about a weakness that is of no interest to their interviewer. Make sure you do not fall into any of these common traps:
1. Trying to Present a Strength as a Weakness
“My greatest weakness is that I just work too hard and give everything I have to my job. Maybe I care too much. I’m always the first at my desk in the morning and put in much more overtime than any of my colleagues.”
It might be tempting to try to dress a positive up as a negative, rather than talking about any true weaknesses. But it is one of the oldest tricks in the book and an interviewer will see right through it. An answer like this shows no evidence of self-awareness or reflection, and will look like an attempt to avoid the question.
2. Denying the Existence of Any Weaknesses
“Hmm, I really can’t think of any. Everyone I’ve worked with has always been delighted with my performance.”
No one is perfect and everyone has skills or characteristics they could work on. If you refuse to talk about your greatest weakness then you will come across as arrogant, deluded, or as though you are trying to hide a critical flaw from your potential employer.
3. Giving an Answer That Undermines Your Ability to Do the Job
“I’m not a great team player. I find it difficult to get along with people – I don’t really like taking orders from my superiors and I respond badly to any negative feedback.”
Unless you’re applying for a job where you will be working in almost total isolation then this kind of answer will ring some major alarm bells. While your answer should be honest, you do not want to reveal a weakness that would severely hinder your performance.
4. Giving an Irrelevant Answer
“I’m terrified of heights. Just climbing a ladder makes me shake like a leaf.”
Your interviewer is unlikely to be interested in this answer unless the job involves working at heights. They want to hear about something that has some bearing on the position you are applying for.
Interviewers will not be fooled by answers that try to avoid the question and they will not let you off the hook. They might rephrase the question, or come back with a follow-up to push you into giving a genuine answer.
Responses that are too vague or general should also be avoided as they suggest that you can’t think on your feet. Again, the interviewer is likely to probe for specifics.
Remember that your answer should demonstrate honesty, self-awareness and a willingness to improve. If your response doesn’t do this then you need to think again.
How to Get It Right
A strong response to a question about your greatest weakness will have two parts.
- Talk about a real weakness that is relevant to the job but not a major hindrance.
- Demonstrate how you are already working on that weakness.
To start with you will need to choose a ‘good’ weakness. Ideally, one that is:
- Relevant – Talking about your phobia of spiders tells an interviewer nothing useful and comes across as evasive.
- Not crucial to the job – You’re unlikely to land a job in sales if your weakness is that you hate picking up the phone and speaking to people.
- Easy to improve on – It's crucial to show that you have taken steps to address your weakness, so you need to choose something that you can realistically get better at.
To select a weakness that would work well in an interview, begin by thinking back over previous roles, your time in education, extra-curricular activities, volunteer work and so on. Are there any areas where you have particularly struggled? You might consider:
- tasks or work-related skills that you find difficult or dislike;
- times you have failed or underperformed at work;
- any criticism you have received from supervisors;
- anything you have been told you need to work on.
Common areas that might be applicable include time management, public speaking, leadership skills, sharing responsibility or numerical skills. Write down everything you can think of, however big or small.
Once you have a shortlist of possible answers, check that they fit the criteria above. It is useful at this stage to have a thorough look at the job description. Pick out all the key skills and requirements, and make sure that the weakness you choose does not apply to any of them.
Thoroughly researching the role can also help you to turn the question to your advantage. For instance, if the job involves thinking on your feet and using your initiative, your weakness could be that you become frustrated when you are expected to adhere to strict protocol at all times. This is still a plausible weakness, and something that you can work on, but for this role, it could become a positive and suggests that you are well suited to the job.
Once you have chosen a sincere but easily fixable weakness, you must be able to show that you are working on it. Perhaps you’ve completed a relevant course or joined a class or group. You might be getting help from a mentor or advisor, or have found tools that help you to correct your weakness on your own.
Finally, try to provide some concrete evidence of improvement. If leadership is your weakness, perhaps you have recently started managing someone and received positive feedback. Or if you have been improving your time management, describe how working more efficiently has impacted positively on a particular task or project.
Once you have worked on preparing one weakness, identify a few alternatives. Your interviewer might start by asking about your greatest weakness but follow up with a question about other weaknesses. Or they might ask the question in a slightly different way. Having a few answers prepared will help you to give a considered, confident response, however the interview unfolds.
The following technique will help you to hone your answers further.
The STAR Method
The STAR Method is a great technique for approaching any interview questions that require an example-based response. It provides a framework to make sure your answer covers all the key components, and is well worth practising when preparing for an interview. The acronym STAR helps you remember the main elements:
- Situation. Provide the background information for your example: Who were you working for? What was the project? Were you working in a team or on your own?
- Task. Now you need to explain and describe the details of the task. What was your role? What goal were you working towards?
- Action. Describe the process you went through to achieve your goal, focusing on your own personal contribution.
- Result. Finally, talk about your achievements, or the outcome of the project. If possible, offer numbers and statistics to back itl up.
The STAR method helps to keep your examples engaging, and ensures they cover all the points that your interviewer will be looking for.
Examples of Strong Answers
Below are a couple of sample answers that would be a good response to the question ‘What is your greatest weakness?’. Remember, these are just for guidance – your own answer should be personal to you, drawing on your own experiences and skills.
“I would say that I can be too direct. When I’m giving feedback to colleagues I try to be very honest but I have learned that sometimes my comments come across as brusque. I do a debrief after each project and I realised that some team members felt I was being more critical than constructive, which wasn’t my intention.
I took part in a leadership course where we talked about the best ways to provide feedback, and how we should tailor our communication style to different people and situations. I’ve been working on applying all that I’ve learned and last week a colleague came to thank me for some feedback on a recent presentation. He said my comments had been really valuable.”
The interviewee makes it clear that they were not being actively unpleasant to colleagues, but were aware that their communication skills needed work and this was creating some negative feeling at work. They took positive steps to improve those skills and offer a solid example of the progress they have made.
“I get very nervous addressing large groups. I’m comfortable speaking up in team meetings and will happily give presentations to my colleagues at work. But in a more formal setting or in front of a crowd of strangers I do struggle.
I don’t want this to hold me back, so I’m trying to build my confidence in public speaking. Someone suggested that acting classes might help, so I’ve signed up for a course at my local college. And last month, I volunteered to give a presentation at a networking event I attend. There were about 50 people there and normally I would have been terrified at the thought of standing up in front of them. I was still nervous, but I felt that the presentation went well. Actually, I ended up enjoying it.”
Many people can identify with a fear of public speaking. The interviewee makes sure to stress that they are not too timid to speak up at work at all, which could be a concern. They show initiative in how they are tackling this weakness head on and provide clear evidence that their efforts are paying off.
Other Interview Questions that Focus on Weaknesses
Be aware that an interviewer may not use the exact words "What is your greatest weakness?" when asking this question. Although they are looking for the same information, they may couch the question in different terms.
Here are a few possible variations on the greatest weakness question:
- “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”
- “If I called your current manager/supervisor right now, what would they say was your main weakness?”
- “What is the main developmental goal you are working on at the moment?”
- “Which part of this role might be most challenging for you?”
- “What do you find most difficult in your current role?”
- “Which one area do you think you could most improve on?”
- “Tell me about your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.”
Although these are all variations on the same theme, it's important that you listen carefully to how your interviewer phrases the question on the day. You may have prepared a perfect answer but you must tailor it to the actual question posed, so that it sounds genuine and fluent.
The interviewer is also testing your ability to think on your feet and communicate effectively, so you don’t want to give an answer that has clearly been learnt by rote.
You’ve described your greatest weakness and explained how you are working on it, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief too soon; there may be some follow-up questions.
Your interviewer may have found your answer particularly relevant or interesting, and wants to know more. Or they might be probing you further because they felt your answer was too vague or unconvincing. Further questions about your weaknesses could include:
- “Could you explain how that weakness has affected you negatively?” The interviewer might ask this if they feel you have tried to avoid presenting a real weakness.
- “Can you tell me about some other weaknesses or areas for improvement?” Again, the interviewer might ask this if they’re unconvinced by your first answer. Or they might be aware that candidates often prepare one weakness for this question, and want to see what you come up with when put on the spot.
- “What are you doing to overcome this weakness?” This should be part of your original answer, so if the interviewer asks this you may not have explained clearly enough.
- “How can you reassure me that this won’t affect your ability to perform this role effectively?” Similar to the follow-up question above – your answer should clearly alleviate any concerns that your weakness would make you unsuitable for the job.
If you have followed the tips and advice set out in this article, then you should be able to offer an authoritative answer to any follow-up questions. If you think that further questions about your weaknesses might throw you, then you need to go back and spend more time preparing.
Key Points to Remember
- Your answer should show self-awareness, and a willingness to address your weaknesses.
- Pick a weakness that is relevant, not crucial to the job and fixable.
- Your answer should have two parts:
1) describe your greatest weakness;
2) demonstrate how you are working on it.
- Practise the STAR method to structure an effective answer.
- Remember the interviewer may use different terms when posing this question – make sure you understand what they are really asking.
- Be prepared for follow-up questions. The interviewer might ask you to elaborate or describe further weaknesses.
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