I’m a little surprised to be writing about this topic because it has been written about many times before. But I recently participated in a couple of interviews where this question was asked, and I was quite shocked to see candidates so unprepared to handle it effectively.
From an interviewer’s perspective, I’m really not a big fan of the question “What is your greatest weakness?” I just don’t see much value in asking it. It might help weed out really poor candidates but it’s unlikely to help me separate great from good. With all that said, this question still gets asked in many interviews, so if you’re in a job search, you’ve got to be prepared for it.
I’ve read many articles providing advice on this topic and I think I have at least one or two thoughts that may offer a different perspective for you to consider. My hope is, that in sharing, I may be able to help future interviewees answer this question with confidence and purpose.
To set a tiny bit of context before I jump into my four rules for answering the “what is your greatest weakness?” question, let’s start by agreeing on why this question is being asked in the first place.
In my experience, 90% of the time or more, the interviewer does not ask this question with a specific purpose in mind. We tend to ask this question because it’s a question we’ve been asked before. It’s going to show up on many lists of “top interview questions”. It’s just a question people ask … Most interviewers who ask it, haven’t really considered why they’re asking it. They don’t really have a framework or plan for how they’ll derive knowledge from the various responses candidates give. Its hard to know what good or great looks like. It’s important to be aware of this when planning your strategy for response.
Given the fact most people don’t really know why they’re asking this question in the first place, or what great looks like in an answer, your mindset as a candidate needs to be about controlling the downside vs. trying to hit a home run. The last thing you want is for your answer to this question to be memorable. If its memorable, chances are it was a bad answer. You’re never going to win a job because of your answer to the “what is your greatest weakness?” question …. But you might lose one.
If 90% of interviewers aren’t sure why they’re asking this question, the other 10% are probably asking because they want to see how you answer it. They’re testing to see if you’re full of crap or not. If this question has one strength, it’s as a device to identify truly unsuitable candidates and BS artists. Don’t fall into this trap.
In my experience, you want to handle this question in a manner that takes the downside out of the equation and demonstrates that you are a normal, thoughtful, honest, self-aware human being. Here are my four rules to do just that.
Rule #1 - Be Honest
Let’s get this one out of the way right up front. Do not make up BS weaknesses. Do not try to outsmart your interviewer. Do not be funny. Do not be patronizing. Do not disguise a strength as a weakness. These are all traps. You need to perform an honest assessment of your skills relative to the requirements of the job and identify some legitimate areas for improvement. There are only a few ways you can mess up this interview question, and not being honest is one of them.
Rule #2 - Favor Functional Weaknesses over Personal Weaknesses
This is an important one for me. Many people, when asked the question, “what is your greatest weakness?” immediately assume they need to answer with a personal weakness e.g. I’m a control freak or I have a tendency to get mired in details or I can get too emotionally attached to a project. This is a mistake in my opinion.
When I’m asked the question, “what is your greatest weakness?” I always choose functional weaknesses or skill deficiencies instead e.g. social media marketing, illustrative design, Ruby on Rails. The reason I do this is because a functional weakness can be easily addressed through learning and development. We all have plenty of these and as long as you demonstrate a commitment to self-improvement it’s not a big deal. Personal weaknesses on the other hand, speak to your essential character. Things that don’t easily change. Those can be deal breakers.
My mindset when doing an interview is to convince the employer that I’m the perfect person for the job … I just have some functional areas to work on as we all do. I never want to introduce anything that might make the hiring manager question me as a person or as a fit for the company.
Rule #3 - Be Selective and Precise
You have to be honest. You also need to be smart. If the top three requirements for your dream job are Java Script expertise, strong project management skills and web design experience, for the love of god please don’t cite one of those as a weakness. I’d feel weird to be calling this out if I hadn’t just seen someone do exactly that in an interview earlier this year.
My approach to selecting weaknesses is to find a couple of legitimate but non-essential areas to focus on. For example, as a Marketer, I have lots of weaknesses but if I know the employer’s top priorities are Messaging, Digital Marketing and Branding … I’m probably going to highlight some weaknesses I have in other areas. I might choose to focus on other functional areas like Social Media or Public Relations. They’re legitimate skills related to the job, but they’re not deal breakers.
One other tip for selecting a weakness is to err on the side of specificity. For example, instead of saying “one of my weaknesses is social media marketing” I might say something much more specific like, “By 2018, social media will be a critical part of any successful demand generation engine. And while I understand the fundamentals of social media, it’s not a core strength of mine. I’ve already incorporated it into my personal learning plan for this year so I can close the gap.”
By getting specific in this way I’m accomplishing two things. First, I’m limiting the perceived impact of my weakness by being precise i.e. social media in its application to demand generation. Second, I am demonstrating a basic command over the subject while identifying a legitimate area for growth. In contrast, if I’d just said “I have a weakness in social media,” the scope of my weakness seems much more expansive and also doesn’t demonstrate even a basic understanding of the subject i.e. that social media is becoming a more important part of a best practice demand generation strategy.
Rule #4 - Tie Everything to a Personal Learning Plan
I touched on this concept in the last section but it’s worth spending a few more moments on. In addition to proving you’re a solid, self-aware human being, the question, “what is your greatest weakness?” gives you the chance to demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning and development. In some cases, this may be an opportunity to stand out a little from competing candidates.
Once you’ve cited a functional weakness, its critical to pair that with a comment about your commitment to improving in the area. I try to be quite specific in how I describe it. The night before my interview, when I’m preparing to answer this question, I’ll do a bit of research into online courses, articles, or books focused on the subject. Then I’ll identify them specifically as I demonstrate my commitment to learning and closing the functional gaps.
For example, instead of just saying “I don’t have a lot of experience in CSS design.” I might say, “CSS design is an area I identified last year that I needed to improve on. For the past six months, I’ve focused on it in my personal learning plan. I’ve read two of the top books on the subject and I’ve enrolled in an online course to help close the gap. By June of this year, I’m confident I’ll be up to an expert level in CSS.” Answering in this way shows self awareness and also a real dedication to pursuing expert level command over the subject - not just improving upon a weakness.
Inevitably you will face the “what is your greatest weakness?” question in a job interview. At some point, we all get it. As an interviewer, I’m not a big fan of this question but I still prepare for it when I’m interviewing for a job. I hope these tips will be helpful for you.
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