Why do interviewers ask you to describe your greatest weakness? There are actually numerous answers to this question that are often interrelated. This potentially “lose-lose” scenario tests a number of aspects regarding your personality and mental acuity.
Why is it a “lose-lose” situation? If you avoid answering the question altogether, you risk being seen as an equivocator; in daily tasks it may be difficult to get a straight answer out of you. Conversely, if you answer in a way that reveals a serious flaw, you risk self-sabotaging.
The interviewer is giving you a chance to see if you will eliminate yourself from contention for the position. The longer it takes to fill the position, the more costly the exercise. Speed is of the essence.
Eliminating the Negative
When the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software provides them with a stack of candidates, the first thing employers do is skim through them looking for obvious mismatches and flaws. However, they may still have dozens of remaining candidates, so the “greatest weakness question” helps them pare that down to a more manageable number.
For example, if it is a sales position and your answer is: You are “not good with people”, then you are not getting the job. If that is true, then the job may not be a good match for you anyhow, and you should have done more research.
The next likely reason is to see if you can cope with a difficult question. If you’re flustered by it, or scramble for an answer, it’s possible that you did not fully or properly prepare for the interview. This is likely going to be reflected in how you prepare for your daily tasks on the job. In this case, you’re almost certainly not the candidate they’re looking for.
Do you understand yourself?
What employers are actually looking for is a certain degree of self-awareness. They know perfectly well that everyone has flaws. If you make the claim that you don’t have any flaws, this could paint you as arrogant. It could reveal that you may not have an open mind to learning; that you won’t easily accept correction; or that working with you may be difficult.
Creating a Win-Win Scenario
You have to tread a fine line between being too blunt and too obscure. What can you say that is honest, shows insight, and isn’t going to threaten your chances of obtaining the position?
Let’s imagine that you’ve been a highly successful corporate trainer for a number of years. Now, you’re applying for a position as Chief Learning Officer (CLO). What is your greatest weakness?
It is your inexperience, of course. You’ve got a great deal of experience training others, but almost none organizing and supervising people like yourself who train other people. Should you admit that? Absolutely!
Your interviewer already knows a great deal about you, including the fact that you don’t have much experience supervising or managing others or rolling-out training plans for others to teach. Yet, you are sitting in that chair, and you are being considered for the job.
By admitting that weakness, you’re not telling the interviewer anything they don’t already know, so you’ve lost no credibility. On the contrary, you’ve demonstrated that you are aware of your shortcoming in this area.
A really good answer to this question would be something similar to:
“I recognize that I need some development in the area of [management/supervision/roll-out], and to that end, I’ve been reading [famous management text] a great deal on the subject. I’ve even enlisted the aid of [coworkers/experts in the field] to help me recognize important signs, and to relate strategies that I can apply.”
“I already possess strong organizational skills, and I feel that this will serve me well as I learn to develop and implement my plans for growth.”
This works for fresh graduates, too. You’ll probably have very limited experience that you can talk about. Instead focus on the fact that although you’re competent in many important areas for the position, you recognize that there are areas where you could really enhance your skills to become more effective.
If you’re not just starting out, or you are not changing industries, these weaknesses might not apply to you. You can tune your answer in a number of ways to make it more applicable.
If you’re not the Press Secretary, per say, you could admit that you find public speaking uncomfortable. This is true for most people, and as long as your job doesn’t depend on your ability to speak in front of large crowds, this is a perfectly acceptable weakness. Don’t leave it hanging there, however. Elucidate about reading a book written by Dale Carnegie, trying to speak up at meetings, joining the Toastmasters Club, and so on; because that shows that you are dealing with the problem.
You might also point out that you don’t often speak up early at meetings, but follow up with the idea that you are very fond of listening to everything that is being said. Explain that you like to spend time digesting it for a bit, before you make a contribution. Now, instead of being seen as recalcitrant or reluctant to speak, you’re seen as being contemplative and thoughtful, which is a much more powerful perception.
Remember that the interviewer has been down the same road. They have been interviewed for jobs themselves, and have listened to dozens of people before you. If you imagine for a moment that they won’t recognize a pat answer, you’re highly underestimating.
They have read the same articles; they’ve encountered the same recommended answers. If your reply to their questions sounds like a canned speech, or if your reply sounds like a word-for-word repetition of the “best possible answer” it will score you absolutely no points, and you almost certainly won’t get the job.
While preparation is important, do not over-rehearse your answers. Alter the pitch of your voice as you speak so that you don’t sound monotone. Remember to smile, or at least keep a pleasant expression on your face, and make frequent, yet socially suitable eye-contact.
Responding to this question doesn’t necessarily have to be that challenging. With a little forethought, it’s one of the easiest questions of all to answer. You can do this!
Further Reading: 10 Body Language Tips for Better Interviews
Stewart, Cooper & Coon, has helped thousands of decision makers and senior executives move up in their careers and achieve significantly improved financial packages within short time frames. Contact Fred Coon – 866-883-4200, Ext. 200