It's the most reviled interview question of all time:
What is your greatest weakness?
But whether you're a job seeker sitting in an interview for your dream job, or an entrepreneur running your own business, there's a lot you can learn from this question.
Let's take the interview scenario. How would you answer the question above?
a. Denial: I can't really think of any weaknesses.
b. Disguise your strength as a weakness: I'm a perfectionist.
c. Name a trait that will have no real impact on your work: I get really nervous speaking in front of large groups.
d. Confess a real weakness that you feel might lose you the job.
The correct answer is d. Let me explain why.
Answers a--c are garbage. Think about it: Interviewers are asking the same question to dozens, sometimes hundreds of candidates. They've heard everything imaginable, and answers a--c make up about 95% of what gets thrown at them.
But what's the goal of this question?
The interviewer wants to see what unique qualities you bring to the company. How do you face challenges? Can you correctly identify problems? Can you be self-critical?
To honestly confess a real weakness takes self-reflection, insight, and courage. And those are qualities that everyone needs, not just job seekers.
The key is to actually ponder this question. There are no microwave answers. You might think about what troubles you've had in the past, and how you've learned from them. How have you made yourself better? It can help to ask others to give you honest feedback. All of this takes time and consideration.
Most importantly, make sure to identify how you're fighting your weakness(es). If it's a personality flaw, what measures are you taking to combat it? How do you plan on overcoming it?
Take a look at this type of answer in action--let's say you're the interviewer. You ask the question, and you're met with the following response:
I've discovered a major weakness of mine is my desire to be a peace maker--to a fault. I have the tendency to be 'too nice'...which can be a major problem for a leader of a team. Often I have to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. This doesn't come naturally to me.
I've known for years that this is a special challenge of mine, so I give a lot of attention to my feedback style. I prepare thoroughly before delivering constructive criticism; I make sure it's backed up with examples or research if needed. Sometimes I even practice out loud how I want to say it, so I can speak with more confidence.
To be clear, the answer above is not 'what you're supposed to say' to answer this question. There is no 'what you're supposed to say'. This is an example of what one person might come up with, based on self-reflection and feedback from others. Truth be told, it's an honest assessment of one of my greatest weaknesses.
Your answer will (and should) look totally different; it should fit your personality and experiences. Most of all, it should be honest.
Most people hate this question because they're not in the habit of trying to make themselves better--which is exactly why this question can be helpful. If you're afraid of putting yourself out there in front of a total stranger, just remember: The person who will benefit most from this answer is you.
And that's why, whether you're looking for a new job or you're already your own boss, the answer to this question is invaluable.
So even if you never answer it for anyone else, make sure you can answer it for yourself.
By Mike Simpson
Let’s pretend you’re in an interview and as far as you can tell, it’s going great.
You’ve got your resume up to snuff, your handshake was firm, you’ve nailed every question they’ve thrown at you with laser like precision…and now it’s the wrap up segment.
The part of the interview where the questions become less “structured” and start drifting into “casual” and “esoteric.”
You’re feeling good. Really good.
In fact, you’re letting your mind wander out to the parking lot…trying to figure out how the new car you’re going to buy with your new job paycheck is going to look parked out there with all the other fancy cars.
And then they drop a bomb on you.
“So, tell me, what is your greatest weakness?”
(The flip side to this question is “What are your strengths?”, which we have also written an article for.)
Instantly your dream car disappears in a puff of panicked smoke and you look at the hiring manager with wide eyes.
You shuffle through everything in your brain, trying to figure out how to answer this question.
Is it stepping on a Lego with bare feet? Maybe it’s a fresh chocolate cheesecake in the fridge? Or is it Kryptonite?
No, wait, that’s Superman…and last you checked, you’re not Superman. At least, not that you’d admit publicly (well played, secret identity…well played.)
Aargh, why do hiring managers ask these questions???
Is answering this seemingly unrelated-to-the-job-I-am-applying-for question really necessary?
Why Do Hiring Managers Ask This Question?
Believe it or not, this question, which might seem on the surface to be more than a little ridiculous, actually serves a very important function…
Your hiring manager isn’t looking to see what you answer…rather how you answer it.
…and knowing THAT is YOUR secret to turning this seemingly insignificant question into another opportunity to really showcase yourself as the perfect candidate for the job.
Of course, the only way to know truly how to answer this question is to figure out why it’s even being asked in the first place.
When an interviewer asks you this question, they’re trying to see how well you respond to a question that’s intentionally meant to throw you off your game.
The number one job of the hiring manager is to find the perfect candidate for the job and that means weeding out anyone who might not be the right fit.
They want to see how you react to a question meant to throw you off your carefully memorized path as well as gauge just how good you are at being self-critical and aware.
Like we said above, this question isn’t about what you say..but what you’re saying beyond what you’re saying.
Good. It’s supposed to be confusing…because this question is an ONION question.
What’s an onion question?
I’m so glad you asked! An onion question is a question with multiple layers…just like, well…an onion! And like an onion…it can make you cry, but only if you tackle it unprepared…
So put on your safety glasses…it’s time to start peeling away layers!
First off, this isn’t a simple question you can rattle off a quick answer to or parrot back some easy to memorize statistics or facts and move on from.
It’s a question meant to make you think…and think hard.
It also requires you to delve deep into your own inner psyche and do some serious soul searching, which if you’re trying to do all this in an interview with no prep can be pretty dang terrifying and lead to some rather uncomfortable moments (hence the crying aspect of the onion question!)
But before we get started you should download our freeGreatest Weakness Cheat Sheet!
This handy (and FREE!!) pdf contains word-for-word sample answers to this tricky question that you can use in your next interview! Click Here To Get The Greatest Weakness Cheat Sheet!
5 Most Common “What Is Your Greatest Weakness” Mistakes
Just like cutting an onion, there’s a right way to answer this question and there are lots and lots of wrong ways to answer this question.
Let’s start out with the top five.
“Weakness? What is this word, weakness? I am strong, like bull. (Thumps chest…crushes coffee cup on forehead. Flexes for emphasis.)”
Oh no…no…no. Denial is so much more than just a river in Egypt, and if you resort to false bravado and posturing in your interview by telling the interviewer that you have no weaknesses…it could also mean the end of your opportunities with the company.
An answer like this (which is essentially a non-answer) is a sure fire way to get a firm “Thanks, but no thanks” from the hiring manager.
Nobody is so perfect as to not have a weakness.
Not even Superman (Kryptonite!!!) and telling the interviewer that you have no weaknesses not only makes you look cocky (not good), it can also make you appear as though you’re hiding something SO bad that you’re covering it with a hefty dose of denial.
Individuals who answer this way can also appear to have no self-awareness and lack the ability to be self-critical…which can be a major red flag for a hiring manager.
2) Strength As A Weakness
“Oh gosh, what’s my weakness? I guess you could say I work too hard…but it’s because I care too much about the job I’m doing. And I’m a perfectionist. I can’t do anything without making sure it’s absolutely 100% right…even if that means sacrificing all my free time and working off the clock to make sure all my ducks are in a row.”
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Get this person some serious boots, because the BS is piling up in here! An answer like this might seem like a sneaky way to turn the tables on the interviewer and make yourself seem humble but mighty…but all it’s actually doing is making you look disingenuous and unauthentic.
3) This Is No Laughing Matter
“Psst…can I let you in on a little secret? Okay..but you have to swear not to tell anyone. My greatest weakness is..Kryptonite. And chocolate cake.”
First off…you’re permanently kicked out of the Superheroes Anonymous club (Secret Identity means it’s a SECRET genius!) and secondly, you’re not kidding anyone with funny/not funny answers like this one.
When you answer a question like this with a joke you’re telling the hiring manager two things. Number one, you don’t respect the question enough to give it serious thought (which could lead them to think you also don’t respect or take the position seriously enough to warrant being hired) and number two, let’s be honest…you just look stupid.
4) This Isn’t Your Shrink’s Office
“Well, I think it all started when I was about five years old. My bigger sister decided it would be funny to hold me down at summer camp and make me kiss frogs…hundreds of frogs…in her attempt to find herself a real Prince. It was truly traumatizing. To this day I can’t even look at a frog without breaking out into sweats and feeling light-headed.”
What does this have to do with getting hired as an IT manager? Or an administrator? Or any job for that matter?!
Unless you’re specifically applying for a position as a reptile wrangler at a Zoo or an assistant to a herpetologist there is no way telling the hiring manager this information is going to do anything except make them think not only are you not right for the position, but further medical help might be a good idea for you.
Sharing a weakness that has absolutely nothing to do with the job at hand does nothing for you except make you look foolish.
5) This Also Isn’t A Police Interrogation
“Honestly? I love my sleep and there are times when I find it’s hard to get up and get to work on time…which means I tend to drive to fast on my way to work. I must have twenty speeding tickets from my last job which, when you think about it is pretty funny…but expensive. Oh well. Guess that’s just who I am!”
Sometimes less is more…and if you feel like confessing something that will potentially raise a red flag with your possible future employer (I’m always late because I sleep in) then it’s probably not something you want to bring up at all.
The idea is to always be honest in your interviews…but there’s a point where you can go from being honest to being too honest!
So What is the RIGHT Way to Answer This Question?
Start out by answering it BEFORE you get to the interview.
This is where the introspection and self-critical part of the question comes into play. You need to sit down and honestly figure out what your weaknesses are…and it can be a scary process.
Nobody wants to admit that they have weaknesses, but a good candidate…a perfect candidate…can take that weakness and turn it into a strength…even while still dealing with overcoming that weakness.
Think about times you’ve had trouble in the past.
- Did you learn from those experiences?
- How have you grown as a person?
- Have you ever been told you have a flaw in your personality?
- Maybe your weakness is shyness? Are you impatient?
- Do you hold grudges or find yourself unable to move past situations? Are you afraid of change or the unknown?
- Do you have a hard time taking criticism without getting defensive?
Now take those things and really examine them. Are you fixing them?
How did you overcome the troubles you had in the past? What did you learn and do you continue to apply that to similar situations? How have you addressed the flaw (or flaws) in your personality?
NOW…take a good look at the job you’re applying for.
Think about how those weaknesses you’ve discovered in yourself can apply to the position you’re interviewing for.
That’s right…we’re going to TAILOR your answer to help fit what the hiring managers are looking for (you didn’t think we were going to let you get away with NOT tailoring, did you!?)
For a quick refresher on what Tailoring Method is and how to use it to your advantage in this and other job situations, be sure to check out our blog post Job Interview Questions and Answers 101…trust me, you’ll thank me later!)
Be sure to also make certain that the weakness you’re going to use is minor enough not to raise red flags (but no so minor as to seem like a cop-out). It’s also good to make sure it’s a “fixable” problem.
Once you have all of those parts figured out…you can start working on a solid answer for this otherwise frustrating question!
Let’s take a look at some examples of how the question can be asked and how you can tailor your answer to fit.
1) What is your greatest weakness? (OR) What is your biggest weakness?
Straight forward and to the point. Okay..let’s hit this!
“I have a hard time letting a project go or sharing a task with others because I’m always convinced that I can do it all on my own and that asking for help will be taken as a sign of weakness. This has led to me taking on projects that have overwhelmed me and resulted in me being frustrated and angry. It hasn’t been easy learning to let go, but I’ve been working on trusting others and sharing the responsibilities for projects and as a result, have been able to really accomplish some incredible things."
FREE: BONUS PDF CHEAT SHEET Get our "What's Your Greatest Weakness PDF Cheat Sheet" that gives you word-for-word sample answers to this incredibly tough interview question and shows you all of the traps you need to avoid!
CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR CHEAT SHEET