“What is your greatest weakness?”
This is amongst the trickiest interview questions, and if you are not well prepared, you could easily get flustered and blurt out an answer that genuinely tells your interviewer NOT to hire you!
However, as well as being a tricky question it is also a very common question. I have asked this question many times myself in interviews and always enjoyed the variety of answers. So you should be expecting it and you have no excuse not to be well prepared.
Whilst researching this article, I found that most of the online advice on answering this question follows a similar formula. It goes something like:
1. Choose a weakness that you had in the past
2. Relate how you became aware of this weakness and what impact it was having in your life
3. Show how you have addressed and managed this issue such that it is not a weakness any more.
Frankly I think this formula is tired and in fact leads to a weak answer!
Instead of telling me what your greatest weakness IS, you are telling me what your greatest weakness WAS. So you are not actually answering my question (annoying) and you are suggesting to me that you don’t have any material weaknesses any more (unlikely). Not very helpful!
The fact is, no humans are perfect and all hiring managers are fully aware of their own weaknesses as well as those of their current employees.
As long as you have plenty of strengths, I can tolerate your weaknesses. Weaknesses are fine as long as they do not compromise your ability to carry out the core requirements of the job.
The reality is, I have knowingly hired people with glaring weaknesses because I’ve been much more focused on the value their strengths would bring to my business.
One such hire of mine admitted in his interview that he struggles with attention to detail. For a career in finance – where small mistakes can cost millions – this didn’t sound encouraging. But I was so impressed with his strengths (clear raw intellect, energy, passion for markets) I hired him anyway, and it proved a great decision (subsequently I kept an eye out for his attention to detail and helped him improve that point).
Smart managers play to their employees’ strengths.
This is why football managers don’t put strikers in defence, or try to make them better defenders. They put them in attack and try to make them even better goalscorers.
So here’s my recommended formula for a much more honest and effective answer.
1. Answer the question with a genuine weakness of yours that exists today.
2. Explain how you are aware of it, and how you prevent it from impacting the quality of your work.
3. Showcase how you rely on one or more of your strengths to offset your weakness.
To help illustrate the point, here’s a real example of one of my own weaknesses:
I have a tendency to leave things to the last minute. This happens to drive my wife mad as she is the exact opposite. Ultra-organised and likes to have things squared away weeks ahead of a deadline! I’ve been aware of this weakness since I was at school and it seems unlikely I’ll be able change it now that I’m middle aged.
But having said that, one of my key strengths is working under pressure and delivering to tight deadlines. I thrive under pressure and love being “in the zone” in this way. Some of my best work has happened when I have been fighting the clock, either when back at University writing essays, or at work completing a project.
The fact is, what seems like a real weakness is not in fact an issue because of one of my offsetting strengths. To be clear, for someone who leaves things to the last minute AND doesn’t thrive under pressure, this would clearly be a disaster. But for me, not a problem, I still get things done on time.
So you see how you can answer the question genuinely, without it being an issue, and use the opportunity to showcase a couple of strengths.
Bear in mind also that, at the same time, you are being open and honest, and honesty is a fantastic quality to showcase during an interview. You are not ducking the question or pretending you don’t have a weakness any more (and, to be clear, NEVER say you don’t have any weaknesses).
So at your next interview, apply this structure to give a compelling and powerful answer.
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