Your "Greatest Weakness" is not that you "work too hard"

You have an interview next week, and you think you’re ready. You’ve done your research on the company, you’ve determined your greatest strength related to the company’s needs, and now you’re ready to tackle that next sure-to-be-asked question: “What is your greatest weakness?”

Previously, you thought you had the perfect answer: “I’m a perfectionist.” However, you’ve done enough research to figure out that trying to disguise a strength as a weakness is a no-no. So, now you’re left wondering “How do I answer this??”

Before we dive into the answer, let’s back up just a bit. Recruiters and interviewers know that candidates prepare for this question (as they should!). So some interviewers will change things up a bit, and ask the same question differently. For example:

  • What are some of your weaknesses? (Note: asking for more than one)

  • Name one area you could improve on.

  • If you were going to pick an area you would like more training in, what would it be?

  • If I called your current/previous manager, what would he/she say you need to work on?

  • What kind of feedback have you received from managers regarding what you’ve been encouraged to do differently?

Wait…what? Those are all asking about your weakness? You got it. Tricky, huh?

So, the first couple of challenges you have to face in preparing for this question are 1) understanding that the question may not be as straightforward as you thought it would be and 2) recognizing the question when it’s asked in a different format.

It all seems like a bit much. Why do hiring managers even ask this question?

When they ask you outright “What is your greatest weakness?” they’re trying to understand a couple of important things about you. First, how well do you handle situations that focus on your negative characteristics? Do you get flustered and panic? Do you deny that you have flaws? Do you point the finger at someone else for your deficiencies? Secondly, are you even aware of your shortcomings? Have you done any self-reflection, and have you taken any steps to improve those areas you may be lacking in?

When interviewers disguise the question by asking something along the lines of the questions above, it’s an attempt to catch you off guard and get at a more genuine, unrehearsed answer. You may be prepared for the “weakness” question, but asking you about areas you would like to receive training in might reflect skills you lack that you might not have revealed if asked outright.

Before we talk about how to answer this question, let’s first look at how NOT to respond. You’ve already figured out that saying “I’m a perfectionist” or anything similar is definitely not the way to go with this question. Maybe at one time (decades ago?), trying to disguise a strength as a weakness was a novel answer. But, let's face it, recruiters and interviewers have heard this SO MANY TIMES they’re bound to start rolling their eyes the second they see where you’re going with your answer.

You also do not want to go the “I really can’t think of any weaknesses” route. Really? Let’s be honest here. We all have weaknesses, both in our personal and professional lives. To say you can’t think of any or don’t have any reveals a lot about you – and none of it positive. As mentioned before, one of the things they’re evaluating is how aware you are of your shortcomings. If you say you don’t have any weaknesses, it shows not only a lack of self-awareness but also an inflated ego. Why would a hiring manager want someone like that on his or her team?

Okay, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’re back to “How do I answer this?” And here’s my “What? You can’t be serious!” response: Be Honest. Yep, that’s right. Be honest.

Now, having said that, there are a few things you need to take into consideration when developing your answer.

1. Your weakness needs to be job-related. Remember how I said we all have both personal and professional weaknesses? Don’t use a personal weakness to answer this question. You may have a terrible memory for friends and loved-ones birthdays and anniversaries, but that isn’t relevant to the job. The hiring manager won’t care if you can’t remember your wedding anniversary, and will probably be annoyed with you for trying to get out of answering the question legitimately.

2. Make your answer job-related, but not directly related to the key competencies for the job you’re interviewing for. Remember all the research you did to determine your greatest strength? In that research, you figured out what the key competencies are for this job. Your weakness should not be in one of those key areas. For example, continuing with that payroll clerk position (from the last article), you know that the key competencies are: attention to detail, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to prioritize tasks. Given that information, you would NOT tell the interviewer that one of your weaknesses is that you get easily distracted and have trouble staying focused on the task at hand.

3. Demonstrate how you are working to overcome the weakness. It’s not enough to throw a weakness out there and leave it at that. If you don’t continue on to explain how you’re improving on this weakness, chances are the interviewer will ask that as a follow-up question. So, be prepared to include this as part of your answer.

Now, using that payroll clerk example, let’s put it all together…

Interviewer: “So, what would you say is your greatest weakness?”

You: “One area that my previous manager suggested I could improve on was my response time to email. I tend to get caught up in my projects, and sometimes I’ll put off going through it. One method I’m using to overcome this is to set aside 15 minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon to focus solely on responding to email. I have reminders set up in my calendar to notify me when its time to work on it. Now there are still occasions when other priorities arise. However, I’ve improved my response time significantly, and even my co-workers have commented that they’ve noticed.”

Okay, so now you may be thinking, “Well, that answers the weakness question, but what if they ask the question another way?” My suggestion is to have a couple of weaknesses prepared, specific to the job you’re interviewing for. That way, you should have an answer regardless of how the question is asked, as well as being prepared for having to respond with multiple weaknesses.

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