"What's your greatest weakness?" is a question that creates fear in even the most composed interviewee's heart. Do you answer honestly and risk seeming like a dud, or laugh awkwardly and answer that sometimes your cakes don't rise? Um, definitely the former.
No matter how tricky the question seems, the point isn't to drive you crazy. (Unless you're dealing with someone masochistic.) In fact, answering this question in an honest, thoughtful way can create one of the most humanizing experiences of your interview process — and one that might help your interviewer really imagine you as part of the team. Here are two ways to avoid getting thrown off, so that you can make it to the next stage: getting hired.
Don't Dodge The Question
Your first instinct upon hearing this question might be to roll your eyes, groan, or rest your face in your hands. (All on the inside, of course.) There is a reason for the hiring manager asking it, however — no matter how outdated and arbitrary the question itself may seem.
"They're trying to assess if you are somebody who has the personality and social and emotional awareness [to admit] that everybody does have a weakness, and that you are aware of your weaknesses or areas of growth" says Rachel Kim, a career coach at SoFi. "Second, they're assessing whether you have either taken steps or found resources to address them, especially any that are appropriate for the position or the responsibilities that you’re taking on."
You want to answer that head-on, she says, even if the disgruntled interviewee inside you feels like the question is a trap. And be sure to take the question seriously, or you may risk coming off as avoidant.
"Don’t use a weakness that is out of left field," Kim says. "For example, don’t talk about your weakness for chocolates or reality television, especially if you’re just trying to make a joke. You don't want to waste the interviewer’s time. Instead, use a professional weakness that may come into play now and then for you."
Next, be savvy about the weakness you're discussing, and don't use a weakness tied to a critical skill or qualification for the position. For example, Kim adds, don’t share that you're not the best public speaker if that is a key responsibility. You don't want to lie and say that your public speaking skills are Beyoncé-meets-TED Talk — but unless you can speak about that weakness and how you're working on it (like, "I used to be afraid to get in front of a crowd, and then I took Toastmasters classes and found my own style and way of being comfortable on a stage"), you risk giving yourself the boot.
Watch Out For Alternate Phrasing
Kelli Dragovich, the senior vice president of people at Hired, says that fewer and fewer hiring managers and recruiters ask the "greatest weakness" question these days — but they may still get at the same idea with different phrasing. She says that she often asks job candidates: "If I talked to 10 people from the past that you've either worked for, partnered with, or managed, what would they say about you as a whole? What would they say you're great at that you bring to the table? And what would they say you need more help with, or is an area you might need to grow and develop in?"
Dragovich says that everyone has super-strengths as well as weaknesses, and this is a perfect opportunity to discuss them. You might even use a tactic similar to the strength-masked-as-a-weakness line of conversation to explain. (As long as you're genuine.) For example, a person might say that her strength is working in a very high-energy, strategic, and action-oriented way. While that's great for productivity and momentum, on the other side of that coin, that same person might often want to move faster than she should or show impatience for colleagues or peers at some point.
One way to discuss that kind of trait is to say, "I'm aware of that issue and am open to asking for help around it,'" Dragovich says. "You can answer that question in an authentic way, without sounding trite or simplistic."
Angela Santone, the executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for Turner, agrees that the question is "very old-school," and also puts her own spin on it. During interviews, she likes to ask candidates: "Tell me about a time when you made a mistake in your professional career that potentially could’ve derailed it altogether, and how you bounced back or what you learned from it."
Let Your F-Up Flag Fly — In A Smart Way
"If you’ve worked, you’ve made mistakes, so it's a red flag for me when people can't share a misstep they've made," Santone says. "I’ve heard some unbelievable stories in interviews about crazy things that people have dealt with. To hear about how they handled it is extremely insightful and makes you think: Okay, if they’re in this job, they have the skill set and critical thinking that’s needed to deal with challenging situations effectively."
So let your F-up flag fly — in a smart way. Discussing the topic plays out in three ways, Santone adds. In the first, people tell her they’ve never made a mistake (something she describes as "scary"). In the second, people say: "This is the mistake I made, and this is how I corrected it." And in the third, people admit that they made an initial mistake, followed by another misstep, and then they explain what they learned. For example, they might say, "I had a bad situation in which _____. I then tried to _____, but that didn’t work. So, now I’ve learned that next time I’m going to actually talk to my boss in advance and give them the heads up, instead of surprising them with the bad news."
"The last two are the ones where you can actually have a true dialogue, and you get more of an understanding and clarity of what the person's experience has been," Santone says. "We all deal with challenging situations in our careers, and we have moments where we deal with it and then move forward. You want people who can bounce back."