As a career coach, whenever I prep clients for interviews, my motto is “always stay on the sunny side.”
In a job interview, you want to be positive. Responding to interview questions by criticizing former employers, apologizing for your shortcomings, or even calling attention to something negative is never the way to go. That’s what makes answering the inevitable “what are your weaknesses?” question so confounding.
The greatest weakness question is most often used as a weeding tool for a hiring manager to determine if a job seeker is a good fit, not just in the role but in the company as well. What you say is less important than how you answer the question. You don’t want to get flustered or offended by the question. Instead, a good answer will show that you are self-aware, honest, and seeking to improve yourself professionally.
I have always been nervous about critiquing other people’s work product or presenting an opposing view. Although I know how important it is to speak up, I tend to avoid conflict.
This past year I started working on this issue by bolstering my confidence and realizing how imperative diversity of thought is for my own growth and the company’s.
Why this doesn't work:
While this answer would work well for a role that involves a lot of solitary work — say, a grant writer or researcher — it could be detrimental for any job seeker interviewing for a position that would require managing other employees or a team player mentality.
When thinking about how to answer the question, take into account the employer culture and the parameters of the job from the description. Do your research on Fairygodboss and LinkedIn and through networking contacts to learn as much as you can in preparation for the interview. Consider your audience as you come up with an answer that fits the context.
Obviously, there are certain weaknesses that are relevant to all jobs, so try to avoid those. It's probably best not to mention how much you hate being around people or answering to someone else.
As a project manager at my former consulting company, I realized that I did not thoroughly appreciate all of the technical aspects of my projects. To get up to speed, I decided to take coding classes to improve my skills and my technical ability. Now, I have a new appreciation for the implementation and execution of my programs.
Why this works:
The more authentic you are, the greater the likelihood that the interviewer will appreciate your answer. We all have performance concerns that have been addressed, so come up with yours and spin it in a positive way. The point here is to show that you took the initiative to resolve an issue before it actually became a problem. You want to show a time when you were proactive.
Convey to the reader your willingness to find fault in yourself and improve. The interviewer’s takeaway should be that you would do the same for the employer, making you all the more attractive as a candidate. Think of some concrete examples in advance so you’re not scrambling to come up with a response on the spot.
As I grew in my career, I started to notice that I would get distracted by emails, meetings, or other interruptions that disrupted my workflow. While I never had a problem meeting deadlines, in order to be as productive as possible, I recently implemented a system called the Pomodoro Technique. Through this system, I work for a set period and then take a short break to take care of things needing immediate attention. This has allowed me to focus and increase my productivity immensely.
Why this works:
In this type of answer to the “what are your weaknesses” question, you want to consider a challenge that still exists for you and point to specific examples that show how you are proactively working on it. As noted above, this “biggest weakness” should be something that is not integral to the job’s responsibilities. Done right, this answer can be incredibly effective in expressing your humility and malleability. Convey how you are constantly enhancing your performance and professional development.
At the end of the day, you want the interviewer to like you. By discussing some of your failings, you open the door for a real connection so that you can shift the focus to your strengths.
For a long time I was so focused on my own professional trajectory that I neglected those around me. After hearing from a direct report that there was low morale on my team, I started to set regular intervals to check in with others. I now recognize how important it is to ensure the satisfaction and professional growth of each player.
Why this works:
Here, when you respond to the greatest weakness question, you should be thinking of past performance reviews and what may have been brought up by co-workers about your work style. Talk about how you were praised for implementing the change and the impact it had on others. This answer shows your receptiveness to the input of others and a willingness to change, which is typically an important factor in hiring decisions.
Along with "Why should we hire you?" the weakness question is one of the most likely to be raised in an interview. (You should, of course, develop a balanced answer that fits in your greatest strengths and those of an exemplary employee—you're dependable, reliable, and have great communication and leadership skills—to this question as well.)
Instead of dreading this question, be proactive and come up with a script that convinces the interviewer of your value, weaknesses and all.
Give our comprehensive interview guide a look to get yourself prepped and ready for each step.
Elana Konstant is a career coach and consultant focusing on professional women in career transition. A former lawyer, she founded Konstant Change Coaching to empower women to create the career they want. Change is good. Elana will help you find out why. Her career advice has been featured on Glamour.com, Babble, Motherly, and other outlets. You can learn more by visiting her website, konstantchangecoaching.com.