How to answer the dreaded, "What's your greatest weakness?" question.

 

You're at a cocktail party or a business reception.  Someone approaches and, right after the introductory pleasantries, asks, "Say, I'm wondering ... What do you suck at?" - or -  "Hey, just curious, what could you be doing better?"

Can you imagine?

Of course you can't imagine it. Because it wouldn't happen. It'd be just plain insulting and pointless, especially if you assume that the core goal of cocktail party conversations is to have a genuine, mutually rewarding experience.

So why is it that we're asked a comparable version of these questions at job interview after job interview?

Why do they want to know "What's your greatest weakness?"

(And how in the hell should you answer it?)

I could editorialize on the "why this question?" topic at length, but for brevity's sake, I'll offer up the three likely answers:

  1. Because employers can get away with it.
  2. Because a lot of humans suck at making conversation, so pat, behavioral-based HR questions give interviewers great relief (they can just stick to the script, ma'am.)
  3. Because, for some reason, corporations feel that, by seeing what you present as your worst flaw, they can then decide if it's bad enough to steer clear of you entirely.

Whatever our opinions on this question, or assumptions about why it's so often asked, the fact remains:

You're likely going to be asked this exact question, or a thinly cloaked version of this same question, sometime during your interview process.

And so you need to be ready to answer it well, not in a way that makes the interviewer run in the other direction.

4 ways to make sure you get this right ...

  1. Think about your best answer BEFORE you walk into the interview.
    When I was a corporate manager, I would always cringe over (and feel sorry for) candidates who, when asked this question, just fell on their faces due to lack of preparation. Trust me, as the interviewer, you can ALWAYS tell when someone is pulling some BS, made-up-on-the-fly answer out of thin air. And it's usually not pretty. Consider how you could answer the greatest weakness question in a genuine, impactful and original way ... before you're in the thick of the conversation.

  2. Never, ever provide an answer that flies in the face of the core requirements for the job.
    Last year, I had a candidate interviewing with one of my recruiting clients, for a field engineering position. A primary part of his job would involve getting manufacturing equipment back up and running at customer plants.  In other words, time would always be of the essence, as manufacturers cannot afford to have downtime caused by malfunctioning equipment. Those working in this type of position need to be able to work under the gun. Thus, when this candidate answered the "What's your greatest weakness?" question with, "I tend to have a hard time working under extreme pressure" ... he was ruled out, instantly.

    Know what the key requirements and priorities are for the position. And make sure you never offer up a weakness that flies in the face of what the potential employer needs you to deliver.

  3. Frame it in the C-A-R format (challenge-action-result).
    The best answers to behavioral-based interview questions like this one are delivered in a C-A-R format. You present the challenge, you describe the action, or how you addressed the challenge. And then you highlight a positive result that came out of it. See that? You end with a positive result. For instance, you could answer like this:

    Challenge - "For years, my biggest weakness was a fear of speaking in front of groups. Back in school, I'd toss and turn for nights before a big class presentation. And I carried this fear into the early years of my career. "
    Action - "I realized that I didn't want to spend my entire career being terrified in front of customers and during team presentations, so I took the advice of a friend and joined a Toastmasters chapter. I thought, the only way I'm going to get through this is to immerse myself in public speaking."
    Result - "While it was really challenging when I first started making presentations at the chapter meetings, I got a lot better as time went on, and I met a bunch of supportive, helpful people. Today, I definitely still get a little sweaty in the palms when it's a big event, but I'm proud of how far I have come, and I don't toss and turn all night before a presentation anymore."

  4. Consider framing a strength as a potential weakness. I like this method, too. The theory here is that every strength, if taken to an extreme, could become a weakness. For instance, if you're a great runner but you ignore your family and home obligations month after month in the name of improving your sport, it can actually become a weakness (and land you an invitation to sleep on the couch). Same goes for professional strengths, if taken to an extreme. Here's an example of how you could answer using this tact:

    "I am often commended for my strong attention to detail. It just comes naturally to me to see the details that "big picture" folks don't always see. But I know that, sometimes, you can get too caught up in details and fail to devise solutions that move business forward toward the bigger goals. To mitigate the risk of this happening, I always set a mental deadline at which point, I force myself to make decisions. I make a conscious effort to keep projects from getting mired by 'analysis paralysis.'"

  5. Don't be cliche. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard people answer the greatest weakness question with dumb stuff like "I'm SUCH a perfectionist" or "I work so hard, it's just hard to turn it off sometimes," I'd be a very rich woman. Stay away from the say-nothing, overused blather and most certainly stay away from the "Gee, I just can't think of any weaknesses" answer as well.

Be genuine, be strategic, come prepared. Because at some point, you're going to be asked some version of this question.

Trite or not, it appears to be here to stay.

How about you? Do you have a great way in which you've answered the "What's your greatest weakness?" question? Do you have a horror story about how you or someone you know totally botched it? Please share in the comments below.

Photo by: Me. I know, the artistry is breathtaking, isn't it?