How To Answer: What Is Your Greatest Weakness? (Examples Included)
Of all interview questions, “What is your greatest weakness?” likely causes the most dread. People struggle to determine whether they should try to turn a strength into a weakness, whether they should share a personal weakness, or whether they should be honest about their horrible ability to meet deadlines.
Let’s tackle it head on by providing samples and discussing strategies—from the big picture to the nitty gritty details—for framing your response, anticipating potential discrimination, and avoiding 3 “Don’ts.”
Share a “Little” Weakness
This is the big picture framework I explain to clients: tell the interviewer a true weakness, but make sure it is not central to the job function. In other words, under no circumstances should you be interviewing for a project manager role and share that your greatest weakness is meeting deadlines. Likewise, interviewees for sales and business development roles should not share that they languish when tasked to build meaningful relationships. Don’t go there.
Rather, choose a weakness relevant to the job but only in a secondary capacity. For instance, many job descriptions ask for skills in Microsoft Office Suite and working as part of a team. For research folks, you might see a “preference” for both quantitative and qualitative research skills. Computer programmers might be asked for experience in Java or C++.
Framing is Everything
Consider using this framework to discuss your greatest weakness:
State a real weakness but juxtapose it with other skills or experiences the employer will value. Also, show that you are working to improve in that area.
Using this approach shows you are confident enough to share a real weakness, that you have self-awareness of your weaknesses, and that you are willing to improve on them. In other words, you are showing your weakness is relative and possibly temporary; it is neither carved in stone nor something the new employer must tolerate indefinitely.
Sample response 1 “I know this position requires me to use Microsoft Excel and other MS Office Suite applications. I consider myself a power user of Word and PowerPoint, but I’m not as strong in Excel. I know how to make basic spreadsheets, and I’ve never had any trouble adding data to an existing spreadsheet, but relatively speaking, I’m not as good with Excel as some of the other applications—at the moment, I’m an intermediate user.
I realized this relative weakness a while back, which prompted me to enroll in an online course to become an advanced Excel user. I’ll complete that course in the next two weeks. I’m confident this lack of experience will not be an issue for me to complete the work at hand.”
Takeaway This person states strengths but also shares a legitimate weakness that is presumably not a main feature of the job description. The person also expresses the action he has been taking to improve in the specific area and dispels any potential concern that he would be unable to excel at the job.
Sample response 2 “Until recently, I had never considered myself a team player. I’ve always excelled at solitary work and have had limited experience with professional team settings. Even as a teenager, I played sports that were focused on individual abilities—singles tennis and the diving team. It’s not that I’ve been opposed to teamwork; it’s just that I hadn’t been exposed to it. But my current employer shifted to a team-based structure a year-and-a-half ago, and we’ve had corporate training on working together as an efficient team. It has been exciting to learn more about the benefits of effective teamwork; since this shift, I’ve learned a lot about the need for clear communication and accountability checks to ensure we are all working diligently to meet the overall goal of completing the project on time.”
Takeaway The person shares a weakness based on the amount of experience she has had. In doing so, she includes personal details that could build rapport with the interviewer and shows she appreciates what teamwork has to offer. Her response includes information the employer will likely value: that she has formal training in business team structures and found the training beneficial. She isn’t begrudgingly working on a team; she’s doing so willingly and enjoying it.
Sample Response 3 “I have a lot of experience with qualitative research, having completed a full year of fieldwork in two remote locations in the Amazon. I’m not as strong in my quantitative skills, although I have taken courses in SPSS and basic statistics during my undergraduate degree. My graduate-level research projects have never required quantitative skills, so my abilities are not as refined in that area. With that said, I’m a quick learner and when I have taken courses in quantitative research methods, I’ve earned an A each time. If this weakness became problematic for my completion of any assigned tasks, I would be happy to enroll in online courses to further develop these skills.”
Takeaway Notice the structure of this response: it begins with a highly refined skill the candidate possesses, then moves to the area where she isn’t as strong, and then quickly pivots to her willingness to improve her skills through the formal channels of coursework.
Anticipate Discrimination—and Hold it at Bay
You need to be aware of what the specific company—or even any company—will value.
For younger workers who might face scrutiny because they are Millennials, don’t think about sharing your difficulty to show up on time. Some people think Millennials only care about themselves and their futures, so this lack of regard for standard expectations (and common decency) might result in a bigger ding on your character than if an older worker shared it.
For older workers, who some people might fear are set in their ways or inflexible, don’t state that you struggle to adjust to change. Such a remark can invoke stereotypical visualizations of people becoming more and more rigid in their routines and personal and professional lives. This type of response would very possibly crush consideration from a small, start-up organization whose employees must quickly shift priorities and respond to whatever fire needs extinguished.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These 3 Things
1) Absolutely do not express concern about your ability to succeed in the role unless you realize you might end your chances of progressing to the next round of interviews. Let me clarify because this can be complicated.
On one hand, you might be facing imposter syndrome—in which case you are disparaging yourself needlessly. If you haven’t heard of imposter syndrome, read “The Confidence Gap” in the Atlantic by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. (Although their perspective focuses on women’s lack of confidence, men can encounter the imposter syndrome, too.) Understanding that the imposter syndrome is a real phenomenon helps normalize your insecurities and minimize your chance of undermining your candidacy for a job.
On the other hand, there may be times when you want to double check you are truly a good fit for their needs. In these cases, you’ll likely want to be crystal clear about your skillset. For instance, the potential employer might need to know that you have zero, zilch, nada computer programming skills—and you have no desire to learn them. In that case, it’s best to be clear and direct.
Sample Response “I realize that one of the preferences in the job description is for the candidate to have computer programming experience. I have none, and given my commitment to project management—I recently studied for and earned my PMP certification—I don’t foresee myself having the time or mental energy to learn that as a new skill. I need a break from studying during my “down time.” I’m happy to compensate for this shortfall by taking on other, additional tasks.”
Takeaway The interviewee clearly and directly states his intentions of not learning computer programming in the immediate future while also affirming his commitment to another desired skillset. He also emphasizes his willingness to take on different tasks to overcome his shortfall. This frank answer will help both parties assess fit efficiently.
2) Now is not the time to share that you’re lousy at home improvement projects, that you’re an awful swimmer, or that you can’t overcome your fear of snakes. This is a question about your professional weakness—not personal ones. Personal weakness are best discussed in the privacy of your own home and not during an interview.
3) Do not make a flippant attempt to turn a strength into a weakness. I know turning a strength into a weakness is a popular strategy recommended by some coaches, but I disagree. Savvy interviewers will see right through this tactic and find you disingenuous. They also might see you as arrogant or insecure.
Everyone has a weakness (and likely more than one). Dish it up. No one wants to hear that you “have too much grit,” “work too hard,” or “care too much.” Be real. Be honest. But also be strategic.