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.
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:
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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
A strong response to a question about your greatest weakness will have two parts.
To start with you will need to choose a ‘good’ weakness. Ideally, one that is:
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:
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 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:
The STAR method helps to keep your examples engaging, and ensures they cover all the points that your interviewer will be looking for.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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