One question you can expect to be asked in almost any job interview is "What is your biggest weakness?"
It may feel counter-intuitive to divulge any shortcomings to a potential employer, but it's important not to glide over the question by deflecting it or avoiding a clear answer. Every interview question is an opportunity to demonstrate your positive attributes — including this one — but that doesn't just mean turning weaknesses into strengths.
By considering what the question really means, and using context to frame your answer, you can prepare a strong, authentic answer without casting doubt on your ability to do honest work.
What's really being asked?
The first step to preparing a strong answer to any job interview question is understanding what the interviewer is really asking. When a hiring manager asks what your greatest weakness is, they're usually looking to find out about a few key skills and hidden strengths about the way you work. By preparing a great answer, you can demonstrate your area of strength by talking about a weakness. Whether or not your areas of strength outweigh your greatest weaknesses will help determine whether or not you pass the job interview.
Your level of self-awareness
A potential employer is often looking to find out if you have enough self-awareness to identify any shortcomings or gaps in your skill set, and whether or not you can be honest enough to acknowledge a need for improvement. Being able to identify your strengths and weaknesses and how they can effect your work demonstrates a great deal of insight and understanding.
So whether you are detail oriented or not for example, the interviewer will appreciate the honesty. Simply claiming that you work too hard is generic and hard to believe, so it's better to go with something truthful.
How proactive you are in taking steps to improve
At job interviews, interviewers are also looking to determine whether you allow weaknesses to hold you back, or whether you're proactive enough to seek out and pursue opportunities for improvement. In answering this question, you have an opportunity to show that you do have the capacity and motivation to address your shortcomings and learn from them.
A potential employer could also be looking to determine whether you're missing any of the key skills required to do the job, your level of self confidence, and your capacity and willingness to learn new tasks.
How to answer "What is your greatest weakness?"
Although the question is about weaknesses, your response can still be framed to highlight positive aspects of your skills and experience.
Your answer should reflect your own personal attributes and experience as they relate to the job description. Make sure to use an honest example. Take some time to write a list of weaknesses, including any you've already overcome or started working on, so that you can start with a truthful answer and build from there.
Focus on non-essential skills
Consider the key skills that qualify you for the job you've applied for, and make sure you rule them out for this question. Choose a weakness that wouldn't prevent you from being successful in the role. For example, if one of the key functions of the job description is public speaking, don't say that you're shy or afraid of public speaking, rather, choose another area that won't sabotage your chances at showing you're the right person for the job.
Consider your experience
Depending on what stage in your career you're in, a lack of experience could be an appropriate weakness to focus on. Graduates in particular may not have much experience in their chosen field, and identifying and acknowledging this can be appropriate when applying for entry level positions.
For those further along in their careers, it's still common for people to need experience in specific areas that they haven't yet had much exposure to. Such things as team leading, public speaking, or can be good areas to identify, but again, steer clear of anything that is seen as fundamental to the job in question.
Discuss how you've improved
Use examples of how you've worked to improve on areas of weakness in the past. Perhaps you've built a new strength by taking a workshop, or sought advice from an expert about how to tackle an area you find challenging.
If you can't think of an example of where you've taken steps to improve, then start now. Go back to your list of weaknesses and make sure you're working towards improvement now. You build new strengths while you're in the process of seeking new work opportunities, and use these as examples in a job interview to address and fully answer interview questions honestly.
Avoid the clichés
Answers like "I'm a workaholic", or "I'm a perfectionist" can come across as disingenuous, and fail to show that you've put any real effort into self-reflection. If you really are prone to spending too much time at work, delve deeper into the root cause. Perhaps you have some issues with time management, prioritizing, or delegating tasks at work. Maybe rather than being a perfectionist, you're driven by a sensitivity to criticism, or you tend to focus too much on detail. Those are weaknesses that make sense to mention when asked any interview questions about your greatest weakness.
While it's important to be humble, it's also vital to maintain confidence when discussing your greatest weakness. There is no shame in acknowledging where you have weaknesses and skills that could be improved. Don't be arrogant, don't focus exclusively on your strengths, but don't underestimate yourself and the value you can bring to your work.
Tell a story
Identifying and working on a weakness is similar to being faced with and overcoming a challenge, so use your answer to tell a story. You've identified a weakness, so tell the story of how it will be improved.
Starting points for building a great answer
Here are some examples and phrases you can build upon when preparing your answer:
- I have trouble asking for help
- I've found it challenging to work with certain personalities in the past
- I find it hard to maintain a good work/life balance
- I'm uncomfortable when faced with uncertainty
- I've had trouble delegating tasks in the past
- I've always felt I could improve my writing skills
- I focus too much on detail at times
Ultimately, this question provides you with a great opportunity to show you’ve got the insight and skills to grow and become a valued team member. Use your answer to show self-awareness and the ability to seek out the resources necessary for growth.