By Laura DeCarlo
"What's your greatest weakness?" is the question that no one ever quite knows how to prepare to answer.
This single question has the power to determine in one swift blow whether you are a potential asset or a liability to a prospective employer. Luckily, there is a solution – prepare in advance for this dreaded question, and you will tame the monster!
[Related: What Is Your Greatest Strength?]
Maybe only one weakness -- if you are very lucky or delusional or not paying attention -- but you do have a weakness. At least one!
So, the worst answer to this question is:
"I don't have any weaknesses."
The employer is trying to figure out if your weakness will make it hard for you to do a good job or fit into the organization. They are also interested in how you handle a tough question like this one.
So time to be honest, at least to a certain degree, hopefully without ruining your chances at the opportunity.
Notice in the example answers below, each answer has two parts:
Be sure to present these weaknesses in terms of how they impact the employer. See the examples below.
You want to position yourself effectively within the interview and need to match positive answers with positive tone of voice and body language.
When you prepare for this question, you will want to pick a weakness that does one of three things:
Be sure that this weakness does not hinder your ability to do the job or to fit in with the employer.
What do I mean by a "weakness that is really a strength in disguise"? The weakness is really a good characteristic that has been taken a bit too far.
Notice the two part answers: (1) the Confession, and (2) the Recovery:
(Confession)"I feel that my greatest weakness is that I am very critical of my own work. I have always prided myself on producing excellent and error-free work. While this is beneficial to my job performance, it is possible to go to extremes.
(Recovery)"I have also found that I can easily waste time checking and rechecking. Now I am aware of what to look for in being such a stickler, so I am always making a conscious effort to trust myself and my quality focus more and not be so incredibly critical of my work. I know that there is a limit to proofreading."
(Confession)"It's important to me that everyone gets along in the workplace. In the past I have always gone the extra mile to help out whenever it is necessary in trying not to disappoint or let anyone down.
(Recovery)"I'm not saying I no longer help others out. However, I've learned to be more assertive, to better recognize and prioritize projects, to know whether I can bail others out without jeopardizing my existing work."
(Confession)"Some people would consider the fact that I have never worked in this field before as a weakness. However, being highly trainable and open minded, I have no pre-conceived notions on how to perform my job.
(Recovery)"Working with your organization will give me the opportunity to learn the job the way you want it done, not the way I believe it is done. In addition, although I have no former on-the-job experience, I do bring with me extensive hands-on training and experience which can only enhance my ability to learn extremely quickly."
BE VERY CAREFUL of this one! It might backfire if not presented carefully.
(Confession)"In my last job, we used the same medical transcription software for many years that ran on the old technology we used, so my software skills became out of date. Other than personal use of the new versions of Microsoft Outlook and Word on my own computer at home, I had no experience using the current version of Microsoft Office products.
(Recovery)"I learned about new medical transcription software -- from XYZ Company -- which is based on a newer version of Microsoft Office. So, a few months ago, I started a training program focused on the current versions of Microsoft Office products, focused on Excel, Word, and Outlook. As a result, I became proficient enough to help when we finally made the transition to the new software.
"In helping my colleagues learn the new software, I realized that I must continue to pay attention to what is happening with technology in this field and keep my skills up-to-date, even if my employer isn't staying current."
Perhaps you would prefer to use the harmless weakness strategy. Some employers might view this "weakness" as a "strength" assuming you could stop your "recovery."
Again, we have a (1) confession and a (2) recovery:
(Confession)"I have had a hard time disconnecting from technology. I always have my smart phone with me and, of course, I have a computer at home. So, I was constantly checking in with my work email while I checked my personal email. I didn't check it while driving, but I did check it too often outside of working hours and even on weekends.
(Recovery)"I promised myself that I would stop being so obsessed with technology, and pay more attention to real life -- to my family, my friends, and what's happening around me. Detaching from technology is restful, good for my eyes (I'm told), and keeps me better-connected with the real world. I'm even reading a book, printed on paper, currently. So, I think I'm a more balanced person, now."
Obviously, this would not be the weakness to choose if the position being sought required being "on duty" by your phone twenty-four by seven. And some organizations want and expect this kind of "obsession" by employees. So, if you want to work for one of those employers, you might want to find a different, more irrelevant weakness.
Regardless of what strategy you use, your ultimate goal is to present a real weakness that does not damage your potential for the position, but also does not come across as dishonest, unrealistic, or staged.
If you are not sure if you are picking a negative weakness, review the criteria for the position, and put yourself in the shoes of the employer to consider what you would like to hear and what you would think was negative.
Take time to practice difficult answers like this with a partner until you feel comfortable so that you will sound natural and confident in the interview.
For laughs -- and some insight -- read 30 Bad Answers to Job Interview Questions.
For more about handling behavioral interviews, panel interviews, and telephone interviews, as well as preparing for job interviews, see the article list on the right.
About this author...
Laura DeCarlo is recognized as the career industry’s ‘career hero’ making a difference to both job seekers and career professionals as the founder of Career Directors International. She possesses 11 top-level certifications in resume writing, career coaching, and career management; 7 first place resume and job placement awards; and has written three books on interviewing and job search including Interview Pocket RX, Interviewing: The Gold Standard, and Job Search Bloopers. Follow Laura on Google+ and Twitter at @careerhero.