“What’s your greatest weakness?” is the question that no one ever quite knows how to prepare to answer. This single question has the power to determine in one swift blow whether you are a potential asset or a liability to a prospective employer.
Luckily, there is a solution – prepare in advance for this dreaded question and you will tame the monster!
Answering the Question
Let’s take a look at what we don’t ever want to say first, and why.
- Never, never, never choose a weakness that demonstrates your inappropriateness for the job:
- “Spelling” should never be the greatest weakness of a secretary.
- “Dealing with difficult people” is not a good answer for a customer service or team-oriented position.
- "Bad with math" is the wrong weakness for accounting or analyst jobs.
You get the idea...
- You want to position yourself effectively within the interview and need to match positive answers with a positive tone of voice and body language.
- Look to address the real concern behind the question “Can we count on you to do this job properly?”
When you recognize that "real" question, you can create an answer fine-tuned to selling the position. For example, if you are looking for a job as a secretary, but are not a good speller, you would answer something like this:
“I believe that in any position requiring clerical skills, it is important to produce quality error-free work. Because of this, I always proofread my work and use the spell check as a back-up. For uncommon words, I have always kept a dictionary close at hand.”
Picking the Best Weakness
When you prepare for this question, you will want to pick a weakness that does one of two things:
- Does not hinder your ability to do the job or fit in with the company by pointing out something negative about you.
- Is a strength in disguise or represents an irrelevant weakness.
The "Strength in Disguise" Weakness
What do I mean by a "weakness that is really a strength in disguise"? Let me give you examples of such "weaknesses":
A. People Pleaser:
“It’s important to me that everyone gets along in the workplace. In the past I have always gone the extra mile to help out whenever it is necessary in trying not to disappoint or let anyone down. I’m not saying I no longer help others out. However, I’ve learned to be more assertive, to better recognize and prioritize projects, to know whether I can bail others out without jeopardizing my existing work.”
“I knew on the first day in my last job that I was officially a workaholic when I came out of my office to discover everyone else had left and locked the door, leaving me with no key to get out! That pretty much classifies my career. However, in taking things to extremes, I have found that it is easy to get burned out by not balancing my time very well. I have worked with a success coach and implemented a Franklin Day Planner to better organize and schedule my time, making sure I achieve a balance so that I can still be a valuable player.”
C. Self Critic:
“I feel that my greatest weakness is that I am very critical of my own work. I have always prided myself on producing excellent and error-free work. While this is beneficial to my job performance, it is possible to go to extremes. I have also found that I can easily waste time checking and rechecking. Now I am aware of what to look for in being such a stickler, so I am always making a conscious effort to trust myself and my quality focus more and not be so incredibly critical of my work. I know that there is a limit to proofreading.”
D. New Graduate or Entry-Level without any experience:
“Some people would consider the fact that I have never worked in this field before as a weakness. However, being highly trainable and open minded, I have no pre-conceived notions on how to perform my job. Working with your organization will give me the opportunity to learn the job the way you want it done, not the way I believe it is done. In addition, although I have no former on-the-job experience, I do bring with me extensive hands-on training and experience which can only enhance my ability to learn extremely quickly.”
The "Harmless" Weakness
Perhaps you would prefer to use the harmless weakness strategy. Here is an example of how one of those might look, assuming the position being sought was not one requiring frequently speaking to large groups:
“I once read in a survey that most people ranked public speaking above snakes and death as their worst fears. I’d have to say that my greatest fear is speaking in front of a large group. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not afraid of speaking in front of others even to small groups. It’s just the idea of having to address a large group that makes me nervous. I know that right now this isn’t a critical issue to my career growth. However, I think it would be an important skill to have. I recently heard of a group called Toastmasters that assists its members in learning to gain professional speaking skills. I’m considering joining one, unless your company actually has a chapter that I could get involved in.”
Regardless of what strategy you use, your ultimate goal is to present a real weakness that does not damage your potential for the position but also does not come across as unrealistic or staged. If you are not sure if you are picking a negative weakness, review the criteria for the position and put yourself in the shoes of the employer to consider what you would like to hear and what you would think was negative. Take time to practice difficult answers like this with a partner until you feel comfortable so that you will sound natural and confident in the interview.