Artwork by: Vika Shibaeva
“So, what’s your greatest weakness?” Answering this interview question can be challenging — you want to be honest, but you also want the job. In this article, we’ll discuss why you’re being asked that question and the best way to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
There are a lot of things that go into preparing for an interview. Wardrobe, references, prepping for common questions, portfolios, and even rehearsing how to introduce yourself take a lot of time and energy. Then there’s the most dreaded interview question in the entire universe — “So…what’s your greatest weakness?”
Your first instinct is probably, “It’s a trap!” But remember, the hiring manager has probably seen it all. If you answer with a cliché, (“I’m just too dedicated to my job!”) you can come off as insincere or lacking self-awareness. But if you answer too honestly (“Sometimes I steal office supplies”) you can talk yourself right out of a job. The trick is to strike just the right balance, and if you take the time to prepare for it, this could be the interview question that sets you apart from the crowd — in a good way.
In this article, we’ll discuss the question, “What’s your greatest weakness” and the best ways to answer it, including
Why are they asking this question?
Identifying your greatest weaknesses
Turning a weakness into a strength
How to answer “what is your greatest weakness”
Examples of answers to “what is your greatest weakness”
It’s important to remember that the hiring manager is not trying to trick you. Honestly. They're looking for self-awareness — can you identify a personal or professional flaw, and then figure out how to address it? Past performance is a good indicator of future success, and how you've responded to feedback (from yourself or others) can show a potential employer how you’ll deal with criticism in the future, such as the skills you need to work on or handling a project that’s falling flat.
Hiring managers are also looking to get an idea about how your weaknesses (and strengths, of course) mesh with the existing team and what areas they’ll need to support if you come on board. The hiring game is a puzzle, and they need to determine if you’re the right fit.
Remember, you’re talking to a hiring manager, not your therapist. This is not the time to be negative and throw up a bunch of red flags. Giving a thoughtful, professional answer to this question can be a chance to underscore how you’ve triumphed over obstacles in the past, or how you’re actively working toward doing so. No one is perfect, and showing how you've handled your weaknesses will demonstrate that you're confident, capable, and proactive in your professional development.
When you’re putting together your answer, consider these three elements:
Name a specific weakness. Don’t be vague, and don’t be trite.
Briefly describe how this weakness influenced your work.
Discuss what steps you took to improve in this area. Showcasing your weakness in a positive light combines sought-after self-awareness with a "plan of action."
While it’s important to be honest, remember to choose a weakness that will not disqualify you from the position you’re interviewing for. You don’t want to be the accountant who is bad at math or the corporate trainer who is afraid of public speaking.
Some examples of weaknesses might include:
Focusing on small details
Knowing when to stop fixing a project
Understanding how to say “no.”
Establishing a work/life balance
Having very high standards
Whatever you decide on as a weakness, be honest, truthful, and positive. Rehearse it ahead of time so your answer has a natural flow, and you spend less time focusing on your flaws and more on how you’re working toward resolving them.
Look, interviews can be uncomfortable. And sometimes, that makes us say things we really shouldn’t. Even if you’re feeling self-conscious, resist the urge to make jokes, especially about your weaknesses. Saying your weakness is “I have trouble parallel parking,” or “I can’t digest dairy” won’t endear you to the hiring manager. Instead, it will look like you’re not taking the question seriously, or that you have something to hide. This is the time to appear confident and professional, so save the humor for later.
“Weakness” isn’t a bad word, and it’s not a character flaw. It’s simply an area in which you don’t excel — yet. Remember Newton’s Third Law of Physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So for every weakness, you have a strength. The key is to find the connecting thread between the two, and figure out how you have (or plan to) turn your “negative” into a positive. And make sure you work that into your interview answer. Not great at Excel? Working with colleagues who know it well demonstrates that you're a team player. Need to develop some career skills? Signing up for professional development classes shows drive and work ethic.
However you present it, you'll present yourself as someone willing to grow in your position and reach your goals.
Your interviewer may state this question differently. Alternatives to “What is your greatest weakness” might be:
- What would others say is your greatest weakness?
- If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
- In what areas do you feel you need improvement?
Don’t get thrown off. The interviewer is still asking the same thing. Remember, you want to frame your answer in the same way, focusing on a specific weakness and the steps you took to address it.
So how do you answer something that feels like a loaded question? Carefully. You want to be honest, but you still want the job. There are a few things you need to consider when composing your answer to make sure it’s thoughtful, coherent, and honest.
Don't talk about a weakness that's a job requirement. Read the job description carefully and eliminate anything that's listed as necessary for the role. For example, if you're applying for a job as a call center representative, the description might say that the company is seeking someone who can take customer calls, de-escalate situations, make client calls and tell them about new products and services. In this case, you wouldn't want to tell the hiring manager that your weaknesses are that you have poor phone skills, that you’re a bit combative, or that you’re shy when talking to clients.
Take some time to think about the challenges you've overcome in your previous job and how they helped you become more skilled in that position. Perhaps you previously struggled with working with certain individuals in your department, but you made it a point to work on projects with them, and you were able to better understand their work style and how they communicate, which led to stronger collaboration.
You can also look through previous performance reviews, which document where you excelled and what you needed to improve upon. Perhaps you were able to turn one of those weaknesses into a strength, demonstrating that you are willing to take the steps necessary to improve and grow, as well as your ability to take constructive criticism to heart.
Once you’ve identified a valid weakness, figure out the specific steps you took to improve in that area. Don’t skip this part — it’s arguably more relevant than the weakness itself. And be specific. For example, if you have issues with delegating work, you can state that, but also talk about how you discussed this with your team leader, and that you signed up for multiple workshops that focused on team building and trust. Don’t forget to mention the outcome of this effort — perhaps you were praised by your manager or even promoted as a result.
- Accentuate the positive and avoid words like “failure” or “incompetent.”
- Consider volunteer work to improve job skills.
- Join professional associations or industry groups.
- Say that you have no weaknesses.
- Forget to research the job position.
- Talk about a personal failing. Keep it professional.
Once you’ve identified the weakness you want to talk about in an interview, and the steps you took to correct it, you can begin to put together a full, coherent response. You don’t have to memorize it, but you should take the time to get it down on paper so you can become familiar with it and make sure that it flows well. Plan to spend a little time rehearsing it, so that you feel confident and secure in your answer.
It's okay if you indeed are a perfectionist. The problem is that hiring managers have heard this "weakness" time and time again. You can use it, if it truly applies to you, but frame it the right way. Consider talking about what makes you a perfectionist, not just using the label.
“Sometimes I have a little trouble seeing “the forest for the trees” and get a bit too wrapped up in smaller details, rather than the overall goal. When I was an office manager for Bob's Produce Distributors, I was asked to overhaul the filing system to increase efficiency. Unfortunately, I got so focused on finding just the right color-coding system that I missed the deadline my manager had set. To make sure that never happened again, I decided to itemize each task and set an individual deadline for each. If I get too involved in one task, I put it to the side and move on to the next task. By the time I'm finished and come back to that task, I can look at it more objectively and decide whether or not I need to continue to work on it. By doing this I've been able to meet all my deadlines and make my work more efficient.”
Claiming to be a "workaholic" is one of those supposed weaknesses that just sounds like you’re bragging. And again, hiring managers have heard it from countless other applicants. It’s one thing if you struggle with finding a work/life balance (many people do) but try to phrase it in a way that doesn’t sound like a stereotype.
“It might sound like a common issue, but I need to improve how I view the difference between working hard and working smart. I used to think that spending a lot of extra time in the office means I'm being super-productive. But I discovered that I perform at my best when I'm not drained or anxious. When I got my first job out of college, I used to think I was a rock star for working 60-70 hour weeks, but I was focusing on quantity, not quality. But after a while, I started to feel frazzled and exhausted, and my manager noticed my work had begun to suffer. Now, I work at maximizing my time in the office. I set daily goals at the beginning of each day so that I keep in mind what my priorities are. I do my best to schedule short breaks in the day to take a quick walk or even schedule brief meetings outside so we can get some sunshine and stretch our legs. Adapting how I manage my time has helped me get more done during my regular hours, and keep the quality high.”
Stage fright is a real thing. At the heart of the anxiety about public speaking is the fear of being negatively judged by others. A lot of people deal with this, so hiring managers hear it often. But if it’s true for you, make sure to use specific examples so that they know you’re being sincere.
“I know a lot of people say they’re afraid of public speaking, but in my case, it’s true. I find it very difficult to speak in front of a group of people, especially people I respect. As a salesperson, this has been a big challenge for me. I used to avoid presentations to management or clients, even though I knew it could be detrimental to my career. So, I joined a local improv group. In addition to being a lot of fun, it’s taught me to think on my feet and to work better in a group. We meet every Saturday morning, and it looks like I’ll be able to move up to the next class level! Because of this, I feel more confident and I’ve been volunteering to lead team meetings and small group seminars. I’ve grown much more secure in sharing my ideas with my colleagues and have learned to speak with much more confidence.”
The fear of speaking in front of a group affects a lot of people. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety affects approximately 73% of the population, more than death, spiders, or heights.
The secret to successfully answering the question, “What is your greatest weakness?” is authenticity, self-awareness, and a sincere desire for personal/professional progress. The key isn’t to make yourself “look good;” it’s framing your flaws in a way that showcases your soft skills and demonstrates humility, resilience, a desire for growth, and how these attributes make you the best person for the job.
Hiring managers ask about your weaknesses to determine your level of self-awareness and to gauge if you’re a good fit for the position.
Providing a thoughtful answer to this question can be a chance to underscore how you’ve triumphed over obstacles in the past, or how you’re actively working towards that goal.
When choosing a weakness to discuss, don’t choose randomly, and avoid clichés like “I care too much about my job.” Make sure it’s not a vital skill in the job description, and make sure you discuss the steps you’ve taken to improve in this area.
Answering “What is your greatest weakness” in an effective way can demonstrate your desire to meet career goals, and show that you have the potential to be a productive, valuable member of the team.
Jennifer Inglis is a freelance writer and content creator with extensive professional expertise in advertising, media analysis, teaching, writing, and literature. Prior to working for Career.io, Jennifer was a public school teacher, teaching courses in college and career readiness, writing, and public speaking. Jennifer has a master’s degree in Teaching, and is the author of two published novels.