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On this page: How to turn the infamous greatest-weakness question into a positive for you.

How to Answer This Question - What's Your Greatest Weakness?

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.

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Luckily, there is a solution – prepare in advance for this dreaded question, and you will tame the monster!

[Related: What Is Your Greatest Strength?]

Answer the Real Question

Look to address the real concern behind the greatest-weakness question, which is "Can we count on you to do this job properly?"

When you recognize that "real" question, you can create an answer fine-tuned to selling the position.

Acknowledge the weakness, but your indicate how you have overcome it or how you manage it so that it doesn't negatively impact your work.

Present Your Two-Step Weakness-Confession and Weakness-Recovery Program

Notice in the example answers below, each answer has two parts: (1) the confession of the weakness and (2) the recovery that has happened or the plan you have for recovery.

Be sure to present these weaknesses in terms of how they impact the employer. See the examples below.

Picking Your Best Weakness

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 two things:

  1. Is a strength in disguise, or...
  2. Represents an irrelevant weakness.

Basically, this weakness does not hinder your ability to do the job or fit in with the employer.

The "Strength in Disguise" Weakness

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 that each answer has two parts -- (1) the Confession, and (2) the Recovery:

Weakness: People Pleaser -- Strength: Easy to Work With

(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."

Weakness: Workaholic -- Strength: Hard Worker

(Confession)"I knew on the first day in my last job that I was officially a workaholic when I came out of my office to discover everyone else had left and locked the door, leaving me with no key to get out! That pretty much classifies my career.

(Recovery)"However, in taking things to extremes, I have found that it is easy to get burned out by not balancing my time very well. I have worked with a success coach and implemented a Franklin Day Planner to better organize and schedule my time, making sure I achieve a balance so that I can still be a valuable player."

Weakness: Self Critic -- Strength: Meticulous/Careful

(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."

New Graduate or Entry-Level without any experience:

(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."

The "Irrelevant" Weakness

Perhaps you would prefer to use the harmless weakness strategy. Here is an example of how one of those might look, assuming the position being sought was not one requiring frequently speaking to large groups. Again, we have a (1) confession and a (2) recovery:

(Confession)"I once read in a survey that most people ranked public speaking above snakes and death as their worst fears. I'd have to say that my greatest fear is speaking in front of a large group.

"Please don't get me wrong, I am not afraid of speaking in front of others even to small groups. It's just the idea of having to address a large group that makes me nervous. I know that right now this isn't a critical issue to my career growth.

(Recovery)"However, I think it would be an important skill to have. I recently heard of a group called Toastmasters that assists its members in learning to gain professional speaking skills. I'm considering joining one, unless your company actually has a chapter that I could get involved in."

Choosing Your Best 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 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.

Answering the Common Job Interview Questions:

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.