By Mike Simpson
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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?
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!
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.
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 free Greatest 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.”
2) Tell me…. what are your weaknesses?
Crap! More than one?!? Don’t panic…we can do this!
“There are times when I’m too blunt and honest and might seem aloof. I tend to say the first thing that comes to my mind without thinking about what I’m saying first. When I’m dealing with other people this can come across as cold and even a little mean which isn’t my intention at all. Once I realized I was doing this it was a matter of slowing down and thinking before I say something to someone…especially when I’m giving people feedback. I’m actively working on making sure that my criticisms are constructive and that I’m leaving people with solutions and options rather than just shutting them down”
3) If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Don’t be tempted to answer this one with something superficial…this is still a weakness question!
“I hate confrontation and in the past found myself at times compromising what I wanted or needed in order to keep the peace. This was a real problem, especially in team situations or when I was supposed to be leading a group because there are times when you need to tell people things they might not necessarily want to hear. Since then I’ve realized this is a weakness of mine and I’ve worked very hard to overcome it. Now instead of avoiding those situations, I take it as an opportunity to practice being more assertive without coming across as difficult. I take the time to listen to each side of the situation and make sure that if I have any comments or criticisms that they are constructive and that the solutions I offer are actual solutions and not just “peace patches.”
4) Are you working on any sort of developmental goals currently? Do you set goals for yourself?
Ooh, this one is sneaky! It’s the same question…just twisted around to sound like something new. Good thing you’re prepared for it already!
“My goal is to be involved in more team tasks. I have a hard time delegating and realize this is something I need to work on. Being the only one in control isn’t always realistic or possible and my desire to control every aspect of a project can not only slow me down, but can also give my teammates the impression that I don’t trust them or value their work. Because I know this is something I have to work on, I like to volunteer for team projects. The experiences, while initially uncomfortable for me as I had to learn to let things go and rely on other people, have really helped to open my eyes to the value of cooperation. As a result I’m discovering that projects, which would have been fine if I had done on my own, are ten times better as a result of the input and work of the entire team.”
5) If I called your past supervisor, what would they tell me are areas you could improve on?
Aargh…this one is one of the toughest ones because not only are you being asked to come up with a weakness…you’re being asked to think about what someone else would find as a weakness in you.
“I get really nervous speaking in front of other people. Normally this isn’t a problem but I’ve found that there have been times during meetings when I’ve kept quiet and not shared my ideas or insights. As a result things that should have been brought up and problems that should have been addressed early on weren’t, meaning more work for me as I had to deal with them as they arose.
My supervisor in my last job was instrumental in encouraging me to speak up for myself and would often put me on the spot, asking me directly what I thought about things or asking me for suggestions. It was terrifying, but necessary and really helped me realize my voice was important in these meetings.
Learning to speak up and take charge hasn’t been easy, but it’s made my ability to do my job more efficiently and resulted in improved productivity for my department overall.”
What If Your Greatest Weakness is No Experience?
Before we wrap this up…let’s hit one more weakness which really doesn’t have anything to do with personality…but rather experience. What if your greatest weakness is you lack experience? If it’s clearly a weakness that even the interviewer can see based on your resume then don’t be afraid to bring it up…odds are whoever is hiring you is going to anyway.
Take charge of this weakness and use it as a way to show the interviewer that you’re not only aware of this weakness but that it’s something that can actually be useful.
Your goal is to convince the hiring manager that although you lack experience specific to the job, you more than make up for it in other equally valuable ways.
Can you pull something from your past work experience that relates or is similar to the job you’re now applying to? Are you doing things outside work (such as further training or certification work) that relates to the job?
Ultimately you’re showing that you are taking this weakness and tackling it head on in order to prepare yourself for the job. This will go a long way in helping to alleviate the fear that you’re a risky hire.
Follow Up Questions That Can Stump You
Here is a list of some of the questions you can expect to hear immediately following “What’s your greatest weakness?”:
1) “So having said that, what have you done to conquer this weakness?”
Remember, this should already be a part of your answer, so you shouldn’t need to worry about this as a follow up question. If you hear this in an interview, you didn’t do a good job of answering the initial question. Make sure to spend the necessary time preparing for this.
2) “Tell me about a time when that this weakness affected you negatively.”
Oh no! The dreaded Behavioral Interview Question! Don’t panic. Head over to this article to learn EXACTLY how to answer any behavioral interview question.
3) “If you are hired for this position, how can I be sure this weakness won’t be a detriment?”
This is similar to the first follow up question in that you should be able to alleviate these concerns in your answer to the weakness question. The most important thing is that you need to convince the hiring manager that this weakness is a thing of the past (or at the very least, something that you have under control.)
Putting It All Together
So there you have it…several solid examples of good answers to the question “What is your greatest weakness.”
Of course, your answers will be different. The ones above are just examples and what you say can (and should) be genuine and authentic to who you are.
Remember, this question (just like you) is an onion, multi-layered and complex…and your answers should be layered as well, starting with identifying the problem and ending with how you are fixing it.
Remember, a hiring manager is going to be much more impressed with a candidate who has the self-awareness to realize they’re not perfect and that they’re actively taking the initiative needed to improve themselves than they will be with someone who is convinced they are perfect and have no room for personal growth and change.
So the next time you find yourself in an interview being handed an onion question, don’t cry. You’re ready for this!
FREE: "What's Your Greatest Weakness?" PDF CHEAT SHEET
Get our handy "what's your greatest weakness?" cheat sheet.
In it you'll get word-for-word sample answers that you can use in your next interview.
PLUS the DO'S & DON'TS for this question so you don't fall into any of the common traps associated with this question.