"What is your greatest weakness?"

How to answer a question designed to make you stumble

By Nancy Wu

The weakness question is probably the most dreaded and difficult interview question. It has the tendency to make people defensive and puts a focus on the negative, which is precisely the reason that some seasoned interviewers won’t ask it. However, it comes up quite frequently and should warrant our attention.

The key is to give a response without getting defensive and to handle the question with grace and honesty. Keep your answer intelligent and don’t sugarcoat too much. You’ve probably heard advice that tells you to respond with a strength masked as a weakness, such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist” or “I’m a workaholic and won’t leave the office.” The weaknesses-as-strengths approach has been done before and shows a lack of self-awareness. With this question, you want to demonstrate that you can analyze yourself objectively (or as objectively as possible).

Think of the question as a way to show the interviewer where you can grow in the position once you start working there. Don’t worry about saving face in this situation: demonstrating that you have the ambition and room to grow is more valuable than trying to defend your ego. To answer, we recommend a two part approach, where you would state and explain the weakness first and then recover from it.

Admit

Admit your weakness. Be honest, but not too honest! It would be wise to not mention the following traits: “not a team player,” “lazy,” “not trustworthy,” “unreliable,” “have difficulty accepting feedback,” “tend to lie,” or “not able to take initiative.” In addition, do not answer with “I don’t have any.” Three common responses are people-pleasing, too critical, and inexperienced.

Recover

Now, you want to recover from the weakness and show that it will minimally interfere with your potential new position. For example, if your weakness is that you are too people-pleasing, you could mention your efforts to be more assertive. You could also say that you have no problem compromising and are willing to take other people’s opinions into account. If you have a problem of being inexperienced in the area, make sure your interviewer knows that you are very willing to learn on the job and your dedication will make up for inexperience.

Keep your answer honest and intelligent. It’s difficult to avoid answering in cliches, but if it is an authentic one, the message will get across. Some interviewers knowingly do not ask this question because it puts people on the defensive, but it’s good to learn how to handle it. Lastly, the delivery of the answer is sometimes more important than the answer itself. Have conviction and be sure of your answer, even if one of your weaknesses is exposed.