By Anne Fisher
October 25, 2018

‘What is your greatest weakness?’

If you’re interviewing for a new job, or meeting with recruiters, or even just trying to make a lateral move to some other part of the company where you work now, there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to ask you to talk about your flaws.

But it’s a pretty safe bet.

The odd thing is that, even though the ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ question has been an interview staple for years now, it still throws people. Nobody’s perfect, after all, including the person on the other side of the desk who’s asking, and having to describe our mistakes is nobody’s idea of fun (especially in a setting that’s often stressful enough, thank you). Yet, if you assume this query is coming, thinking up a good answer ahead of time can yield some interesting insights—not just for your interlocutor, but for you.

First, it helps to understand exactly why the question is so common. “It’s likely to be for one of two reasons, if not both,” says David Burkus, who teaches leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University and has written three books on managing careers. “For one thing, they’re trying to get a feeling for your level of self-awareness. Do you know yourself well enough to recognize your own shortcomings?”

By now, everybody’s familiar with the shopworn turn-a-strength-into-a-weakness dodge—”I work too hard,” or “I’m a perfectionist,” for instance—so don’t even consider going there with your answer. (The irony, of course, is that either of those might truly be a weakness. Overwork often leads to declining productivity, extreme grouchiness, and eventual burnout; and self-described perfectionists have been known to focus so relentlessly on picayune details that they drive their coworkers right up the nearest wall.)

The second reason for asking, Burkus says, is that if the hiring manager leads a team, “they’re trying to see how you would fit into the staff they already have.” That means that “it’s okay to have certain weaknesses if most of the existing team is strong in that area. But a relatively minor weakness might be a deal killer for you if everyone else on the team is weak there, too.”

Unfortunately, from the outside looking in, it’s hard to know a whole lot, if anything, about the people in that group, much less about how their boss perceives each of them; and trying to guess is pointless.

So the best answer to “What do you think is your greatest weakness?” is a candid one, where you briefly describe something you’ve struggled with, and then tell how you’ve approached getting better at it. Maybe people’s eyes used to glaze over during your presentations, but now you’ve joined Toastmasters International and sworn off PowerPoint; or maybe you lacked a firm grasp of what the finance side of your business is doing, so you’ve taken an accounting course or two. The point is to check the self-awareness box, Burkus says, by showing “you know where you can add value and where you need to develop.”

Of course, you can rehearse an answer to the greatest-weakness question that’s short, to the point, and gets it over with quickly. Or you can take a little more time over it, and make it a chance to do some serious introspection—and here’s where it gets interesting.

“What I recommend is, talk about your strengths, and then mix in a weakness or two,” says Tom Gimbel, CEO of Chicago-based recruiters LaSalle Network. For instance, describe a project you managed that turned out well, but mention what you’d do differently next time. “Give yourself a 10 for the overall result,” Gimbel suggests, “and then say something like, ‘However, I didn’t stay in close enough contact with some people at certain points while the work was going on, so I rate myself a 7 on communicating with my team. I’m working on getting better at that.'” The more seriously self-critical thought you’ve put into this story, the more believable it’s going to be—and the more likely it is to impress the person listening to it.

By Gimbel’s lights, most interviewees don’t spend nearly enough time on the answer to this question. “The biggest mistake I see job candidates make is, they do exhaustive research on the prospective employer and the industry, and almost no real, honest thinking about their own strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “It’s fine to know a lot about the company, but obviously the interviewer already knows a lot more about that than you do. He or she wants to know who you are.

Don’t be an ‘A’ student about the company and flunk knowing you.”

Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at workitout@fortune.com.

 

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