How to answer "What's your greatest weakness" in a Job Interview
Many candidates get really nervous when they are asked “What is your greatest weakness?” during a job interview. Sometimes it is because they do not feel comfortable talking about their weak spots, fearing that disclosing them could decrease their chances of being hired. Sometimes it is simply because they never really thought about which are their weaknesses. Several times I was asked if it is OK to simply lie to get out of the impasse. NO. It is not OK.
To understand why not and how to build a good answer, let’s start looking at it from the interviewer’s perspective.
What is the interviewer looking for?
- Understand how self-aware you are
Self-awareness is one of the most important traits of a good candidate because it shows you understand your limits. And whether you want to push the boundaries of your comfort zone or decide to ask for help, you have to know what you are good at and where you lack skills or experience. If the interviewer is the hiring manager, showing that you are self aware shows a) you are more likely to be easily coached since he will already know at least in which areas you need more coaching b) you are more likely to ask for help or escalate when needed.
- If you have a plan to improve
One thing is to know what you need to improve and another is to have thought it through to the point of coming up with an actionable plan. Having an actual improvement plan shows both that you want to improve as well as that you are a self starter. It shows a person who does not wait for others to tell him/her what to do but is able to find solutions autonomously. Which is another good characteristic that successful candidates demonstrate to have.
- If your plan started to give positive results
Because you very likely decided to start implementing your self improvement plan some time ago it is very likely that you can show some results that prove its effectiveness.
How can you structure your answer?
- Be candid and true to yourself
Do not lie under any circumstances. Even if you are a professional actor (in which case I would bring your attention to the fact that your interviewer could be as well). If you just make something up or it is apparent that you are thinking about it for the first time you will not come across as thoughtful and self aware. And even if they believe you and you get the job they will get to know you sooner or later.
- Identify the right area of improvement
We all have areas we can improve. What you have to ask yourself is which ones are more unlikely to be seen as a red flag for this specific job. If you think you are going to be good at this job, you shouldn’t have any. For instance, if you apply for a financial position you probably will not look really good if you say you are not good with numbers.
Notice I used “area of improvement”, not weakness. You should refrain from using negative words like weakness, flaws, issues during an interview if you can.
- Describe your plan of action
For your explanation to be really compelling you want to frame it as if you were answering the behavioral question “tell me about one time when you applied your plan for improving one of your weaknesses” (you can read more here about behavioral questions and the STAR methodology). Of course, conclude your explanation with an example of how it has already produced positive results.
Lastly, do not say that you have already solved the issue completely, otherwise the interviewer can ask you why you would be mentioning this as an area of improvement in the first place.
Example of a good answer:
“One area I could certainly improve in is public speaking. Although I am very confident with the content I put in my presentations I become very anxious when I have to present them in front of a room with many people.
While I was thinking at how to improve it I realized that one of the main issues was the lack of practice. Thus instead of avoiding it altogether I have lately asked my boss if I could present the results of my work in more occasions but to relatively small groups. I also started to practice the presentation more times by myself before the actual events.
After a few of the events some of my colleagues told me that I looked very relaxed compared to previous presentations I did and I have to say that I feel more confident myself. Now my next step is to present in front of bigger audiences which I feel more prepared to face.”
How to avoid common mistakes
Look at the interviewer(s). If you feel she is disappointed with your answer it might be for one of the following reasons. Stop and politely ask if that is what she was expecting you to cover or if she was interested in something in particular.
What is the interviewer NOT looking for
- That you have a “fake” weakness or no weaknesses
If you make up a weakness as you cannot help staying at the office until late hours, the interviewer will likely think that you are making one up to cover the real ones which are the ones he asked for.
If instead you state to have no weaknesses you will comes across as overconfident. In that case the interviewer might even re-evaluate all the answers that you gave (or you will give) assuming that you are possibly exaggerating your skills and experience, rather than being reasonably objective.
- Hearing your real time speculations
If the interviewer sees that you have never thought about it you are conveying an image that does not play in your favor. Either she might think that you have no self awareness, which undermines the other answers you give during the interview, or that you did not even expect the question which implies you did not do any research to get prepared.
- Hearing something unsolvable
If you say that you have a weakness which you cannot fix you will give the impression that you are not able to come up with a self-improvement or mitigation plan. Moreover the interviewer will be surprised that you decided to bring up an area of improvement that is not going to improve during an interview where your main goal is to give a good impression.
Absolutely avoid the following topics/words.
You might think I am stating the obvious but you would be surprised of what interviewers hear during interviews.
- Weakness, flaws, issues
- Impossible, unsolvable
- Scared, weak, helpless, afraid
Example of a bad answer:
”One area I could certainly improve is public speaking. I don’t know why but every time I have to present the results of my work in front of other people I literally freeze.
I have read about it and it seems I am not the only one to suffer the fear of public speaking.
I am very confident in my skills and the results of my work when I prepare the presentation but unfortunately I just don’t seem to be able to deliver it in front of many people. I guess public speaking is just not for me.”
What can you do next?
Now that you know how to craft a great answer you might be tempted to assume that you will be able to do it in real time on your interview. You might, but you probably know you will improve it every time you rehearse it. This will also make you feel more and more confident.
The last step to make sure you really are ready is to get feedback from someone who has experience in evaluating candidates. You can get feedback from family and friends, which is better than nothing. You might also consider using the services of an experienced recruiter or career coach who can tell you how much your answer is compelling from an interviewer perspective. He or she can also help you tweak your answer so it sounds special compared to all the other dozens that interviewers hear everyday from other candidates.
At FasterSkills you can find top recruiters and experienced professionals with 10+ years of experience in companies from startups to Fortune 100 firms. They have sat on both sides of the interview table so they not only know how it feels but also they can help you sound compelling, stand out and therefore land your dream job.
Given the demand for Top Coaches FasterSkills created a new service called Limitless Coaching that allows you to get access to expensive Top Coaches that only wealthy executives could afford, getting the best advice at affordable price.
However you decide to do it. Practice. Practice. Practice. If you don't know where to start you can always ask for a free consultation
"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." - Yogi Berra