A job interview is all about presenting your best self—which is why answering “What is your greatest weakness?” is pretty difficult. There’s no other interview question that feels like more of a trap.
If you’re too honest, you might scare the hiring manager and blow your chances of getting the position. But if you’re not honest enough, you’ll lose credibility.
Well, the first thing to keep in mind is why the question’s being asked—and it’s not to trip you up. Instead it’s to see if you’re self-aware enough to recognize a flaw, and then self-motivated enough to fix it. Today’s feedback on your weaknesses is tomorrow’s feedback on an important team project that’s not coming together.
Answering this question can be a great opportunity to highlight how you've overcome a challenge in the past—or are actively working to do so now. After all, everyone has areas that could use improvement, but if you can describe how you've mitigated yours, you’ll seem strong, capable, and in charge of your professional development.
OK, that's great, you're thinking, but what do I actually say? To help you out, I’ve rounded up the most common, cliché, and fake-sounding “biggest weaknesses,” along with some suggestions for what to say instead.
1. Instead of “Perfectionism,” Say…
“I tend to get caught up in the little details, which can distract me from the ultimate goal.”
You might be a perfectionist, but your interviewer has heard this answer a billion times (and from plenty of people who aren’t actually perfectionists, I might add).
However, by presenting the symptoms, rather than just naming the affliction, you’ll sound much more sincere.
Follow this answer with an example, such as:
When I was a junior web designer at Harold’s Hats, I was asked to revamp our size guide and make it more fun and visually interesting. Unfortunately, I became so fixated on finding the perfect font that I missed the deadline.
Next, describe how you’re working to solve the issue. (Hint: This answer will work for almost every perfectionist.)
These days, I break each project down into mini-tasks, each with their own deadline. If I spend too long on an individual thing, I set it aside and move on to the next one. Usually, by the time I come back to the imperfect piece, I can be more objective about whether or not it needs more work.
2. Instead of “Overly High Standards,” Say…
“It can be difficult for me to gauge when the people I’m working with are overwhelmed or dissatisfied with their workloads.”
Saying that you expect too much from your team will score you an eye roll or two from your interviewer. Instead, explain how your delegation skills could be better.
After providing an example, say something along the lines of:
To ensure that I’m not asking too much or too little from my subordinates, we have weekly check-ins. I like to ask if they feel like they’re on top of their workload, how I could better support them, whether there’s anything they’d like to take on or get rid off, and if they’re engaged by what they’re doing. Even if the answer is “all good,” these meetings really lay the groundwork for a good and trusting relationship.
3. Instead of “Workaholism,” Say…
“I need to get much better at knowing the difference between working hard and working productively. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that long hours in the office mean I’m getting a lot done. But unsurprisingly, I actually do my best work when I’m not super tired or stressed.”
Let’s face it: In today’s office, workaholics get pats on the back, not admonitions to take it easier. Claiming to be one (whether it’s true or not) sounds like you’re bragging.
Next, tell your interviewer about a time when you pushed yourself too hard and the results weren’t good.
Then, prove you’re managing the issue by saying:
I’m making a huge effort to work smarter, not longer. I’ve begun responding to emails in batches so I don’t waste hours every day sorting through my inbox. I write down five goals every morning so that I’m focused on the priorities. I try to take my meetings outside so that I get some fresh air and exercise while we talk. These productivity changes have helped me compress the amount of work I accomplish into fewer hours—which also means I can produce higher-quality work.
4. Instead of “Public Speaking,” Say…
“I’ve heard that more people are scared of public speaking than death. Well, I wouldn’t say my fear is that extreme, but I definitely find it challenging to present my ideas in front of a crowd. As you can imagine, this has proven to be a career obstacle.”
Public speaking didn’t used to be such a common answer, but it’s definitely getting more popular. You can still use it, but flesh out your answers with examples so that your interviewer knows you’re being truthful.
Then explain what you’re doing to get better, like so:
I recently joined the local Toastmasters club. We meet every Friday night, and it’s actually become one of the things I look forward to each week! In addition, I regularly volunteer to speak at team meetings. Even though they’re small, they’re definitely helping me feel more comfortable sharing my ideas. All of this experience has made it far easier to explain to a room that, say, we need to invest in big data software.
Whatever you choose to talk about, the trick is to sound genuine and to end things on a positive note. Rehearse your response so that you can give it easily, and more importantly, concisely—if you spend too much time talking about your flaws, it's easy to dig yourself into a hole. Get past the "weakness" part of your answer as quickly as possible, so you can get back what's most important: your (many!) strengths.
Photo of two people talking courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.