A typical job interview all too often includes at least one of those annoying interview questions like “What’s your greatest weakness?” or “What’s your greatest strength?” So odds are some form of the greatest weakness question will be aimed your way, as you sit in the interview Q&A hot seat — trying your best not to let them see you sweat!
OK. I admit I also sometimes use the weakness question (among others) when I do an interview. Not that there’s any one absolutely right answer I’m looking for. Asking about things like biggest weakness in an interview (and the way you answer the question) helps me see more about the candidate. Like how a person reacts, even when confronted by the obvious or mundane.
You can learn a lot about a person from seemingly simple questions. Each moment of an interview is your chance to show us what you might be like to work with. Interviews are about connecting as much as the ability to do the job.
Do you seem to judge the question — and in effect the interviewer? Maybe you make a quick face? Or do you throw yourself amiably & wholeheartedly into your answer and just do your best.
Even with a good first impression we like to dig deeper
In fact, I was interviewing someone a while back. After only a few minutes, I knew he was probably going to get a second interview. But it’s my job to dig deeper, just in case. And also look for things that need to be explored in the next round.
Also, if I pretty much know they’re moving on, I like to give people (especially nervous ones) practice for the next interview. So in this case, I did turn to some of those standard interview questions, including “What’s your greatest weakness?” Always interesting to see how people react.
Again, it’s not meant to be cruel. It’s part of our effort to get to know the real you better.
Well, this guy gave me a good basic answer. But then my interviewee kept going. Trying to give me the most thorough and honest greatest weakness answer ever I think. Including several examples of how sometimes he gets caught up in the tiny details of a problem … almost to the point of obsessing.
Well, as you can see, he was displaying his weakness right before my eyes. Obsessing on giving a perfect answer. I actually got nervous for him. “Don’t tell me too much!” I wanted to coach. In any interview, it’s good not to turn your answer into a mini-series.
Not all interviewers give you the benefit of the doubt
Truth is, he was so sincere and talented he didn’t hurt himself with me by trying so hard to give a thorough answer. But that might not have been the case with all interviewers.
So when you get a question like this, just know that it’s ok to stop at the summary of the weakness like “I can get caught up in the details sometimes.” But then your follow-up should be something like you are aware of this. And you’ve been learning how to balance being thorough with the ultimate goal.
Also, have a great real life story from one of your jobs about your weakness. Your story should show both the weakness and how you conquered it — and have learned. (It’s always good to have stories prepared that you can turn to if appropriate for the question.)
So how long should your answer be?
Whatever you do, it’s probably best to keep your answer to this one fairly short. There are some interview questions where it’s good to expand your answer, so you can throw in cool stuff about yourself.
But this is usually not one of those questions — unless, as I mentioned, you have a good story to tell about how you overcame your greatest weakness. Or at least have been making progress.
Example of a greatest weakness you overcame
One example would be if you had a fear of public speaking, worked on that fear, and wound up becoming a lecturer on some topic. Now that’s something an interviewer would like to hear. (Uh … please don’t use this story unless it’s real. Stuff like that can come back to bite you.)
But let’s be honest. Most people just throw in these questions to fill out the interview anyway. You get a good idea within the first few minutes of interviewing a person whether this is someone you want to seriously consider. And I doubt any interviewer is really looking to get you to reveal some deep dark weakness like “I steal office supplies” or “I’ve lied all over my resume and hope you don’t find out.” DOH!
But even if you make a great first impression, you can still trip yourself up with a bad answer. So while there’s no one right way to answer this interview question, it helps to come prepared. Come up with something good based on who you really are. And just know that some employers actually are serious about the question and want to see how self-aware you are. So always play it straight and real.
Also, always make sure your tale of weakness has a natural positive spin – like the one above or any good example from real life about how you turned some weakness around.
So to summarize my greatest weakness tips:
Keep it short. Leave off with a positive thought. And then just shut up until you get the next question. If the interviewer pushes the question, try your best to specifically answer what was asked. Shows you’re listening. But again keep it short and stay as positive as possible.
Oh … and in case you’re wondering, the guy I interviewed gave a good second interview. So he moved on to the final interview — and got the job. But in the interim, an anonymous someone (ahem) clued him in about how to answer the dreaded weakness interview question — just in case he got asked it again. 🙂
[Post updated in 2020]
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About the author…
Ronnie Ann, founder of Work To the Wise and Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development, as well as her many adventures as a serial job seeker.