One of the most common—and most difficult questions faced during a job interview is one that many candidates disdain and often consider pointless: “What is your greatest weakness?”
We expect that the question will be coming, but often wonder why it is asked in the first place. After all, why would anyone in such an important and pivotal point in a job search candidly confess to their greatest flaws? From the interviewer’s perspective, what value is there is listening to candidates skate around the question during the job interview? If we know that it’s unlikely that a candidate will provide an answer that is completely direct and honest, why ask the question in the first place?
The answer is actually very simple. It’s because the way that individuals answer this question during the job interview is very telling. The answer provides insight into an individual’s character. It speaks to their self-awareness and ability to be self-reflective. It is an indicator of the willingness for self-improvement. It demonstrates a level of self-confidence, personal drive, and professional maturity. Every answer reaches well beyond the perceived identification of an area of opportunity.
When conducting the job interview, the ability to gauge character is a critical skill, and tells us a great deal about the quality of the candidate. While the question may be expected, the answers provided can still communicate a great deal of valuable information. Bottom line, the interviewer wants to know what type of person you are to work with, what type of employee you will be to manage, and how you will fit into the working environment.
While most candidates may anticipate the “weakness” question during the job interview, many still struggle to provide a strong answer. In fact, many will try to outsmart the interviewer with their response, and end up outsmarting themselves. A few common mistakes that candidates can make would include:
Trying to spin a desirable quality into a “weakness” response. Many will attempt to take an aspect of performance that they know is typically seen in a positive light and try to spin it as a “weakness.” Some common examples would include:
- “I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
- “I care too much about doing a good job.”
- “Sometimes I work too hard.”
Most interviewers quickly see right through this type of response, and see the answer as a way to avoid the question and the heart of the matter at hand. Remember, most good interviewers will not only recognize this avoidance, but will ask follow-up questions that can lead to some uncomfortable outcomes. For example: “What do you mean that you work too hard? Is it too difficult? Do you think you should work less?”
Revealing a weakness that raises flags. It can be very difficult to talk about flaws in a situation like a job interview, especially in situations where the candidate is nervous, stressed, or unprepared. Some candidates may end up confessing to a weakness such as:
- “Sometimes I don’t get along with some of my peers at work.”
- “Sometimes I have a difficult time getting to work on time.”
- “Sometimes I have a hard time completing my work assignments.”
It can be very difficult to overcome this type of response, as such comments are directly related to performance, and are quite frankly strong reasons not to hire a particular candidate.
Failing to provide a real answer. Some candidates will claim that they can’t think of a weakness. Really? You can’t come up with a single area where you can improve? This type of answer typically is seen as an indicator that the candidate isn’t prepared, isn’t being honest, and/or lacks the professional maturity to objectively reflect on their skills, abilities, and career in general.
How to Answer the “Weakness” Question
So how should you answer the “weakness” question? Let’s start by understanding the reasons why the question is being asked in the first place. Your response isn’t simply based upon the particular weakness—it’s also about your ability to be self-reflective. Can you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Where can I get better?”
- As a starting point, understand that if someone is asking you where you can get better, you should expect that there will be a follow-up question: “What are you doing to improve?” Think through this question beforehand as well, and answer that question as part of your response. Demonstrate the desire for professional growth. Immediately show that you recognize the need to improve and are taking steps to get there.
- Don’t get caught up on the word “weakness.” Search for your personal areas of opportunity and where you would like to improve. This is the question that is at hand, and likely what the interviewer is looking for. Focus on the question and not just a particular word or phrase that you interpret as a negative.
- Be prepared. Looking at your areas of opportunity is an important aspect of every individual’s professional growth plan. It’s not good enough to play a part—you have to actually be self-reflective in order to reach your professional goals.
- Be genuine. Don’t simply choose an area of opportunity because it sounds good. While it’s important to be smart about your decision and pick an acceptable subject, look at an area where you sincerely feel that you can get better. This honesty and integrity will make a difference, and will be reflected in the way the information is delivered—and received.
- Take the initiative to improve. A willingness and motivation to improve will lead to successful outcomes, regardless of the circumstances surrounding a job interview.
Every job interview is an opportunity. However, it’s important to remember that we also create our own opportunities, and it’s critical that we take the steps to be prepared. Self-reflection is a critical aspect of professional growth, and is a common characteristic that every company will look for in their leadership. Make the effort, take the steps, and good things will happen.