One of the most dreaded of all interview questions is the ‘greatest weakness’ minefield. Many recruiters are, in fact, moving away from using a question that has become over-used and predictable, yet it is still one you have to prepare for. But how do you answer this without casting yourself in a negative light, while still sounding honest and self-aware? Is it possible to provide an answer that doesn’t sound like spiel or cliché?
Answering this question successfully is all about presenting yourself – including your weaknesses – in the most positive light, according to Steve Gunther, a consultant with boutique recruitment firm 2discover.
But this is not just an exercise in spin-doctoring and obfuscation. This is your chance to demonstrate your honesty, self-awareness, and willingness to learn and improve.
While identifying a weakness or deficiency, emphasise that you are aware of the problem and actively working to improve. Answer with enthusiasm and positivity, and show your prospective employer what a great attitude you have. For example, if you say that you sometimes have a tendency to procrastinate, be sure to emphasise that you are aware of the problem and have become an ardent planner and list-maker to keep yourself on schedule. Stress how much satisfaction you get from crossing things off your to-do list and getting things done on time, and how happy you are about the improvements you’ve made.
Remember, the same ‘negative’ trait can be turned into a positive depending on how you present it. If you have a tendency to be overly meticulous and therefore sometimes take too long to complete tasks, you can highlight the fact that you like to see things done to the highest standard – though you are getting better at letting things go and working more quickly now. Or if you tend to be a little quiet and reserved at work, and are sometimes perceived as aloof, you can say that you are a little shy – but once people get to know you, they soon see that you are loyal, discreet and a good listener.
2discover’s Steve Gunther asserts the importance of using concrete examples from your past as illustration. Instead of speaking in loose generalities and hypotheticals, talk about your experiences and show how you have improved on your weaknesses in previous jobs. The more specific you can be, the better.
For example, you can tell the interviewer that you used to have a tendency to tardiness, but that once you started setting your alarm clock a half hour earlier and using your mobile phone to remind you of appointments, you haven’t been late once in the last six months!
Think about the key qualities required for the job and make sure you demonstrate strength in those areas – and only cite weaknesses which are less crucial to the role. For example, if you are going for an administrative job, you wouldn’t want to say that your attention to detail is a weakness – whereas if you are going for a creative, big-picture type of role, then lacking attention to detail might not be such a big deal.
If your obvious deficiency is a lack of experience in a similar role (such as when you are changing career direction), Gunther advises you to find a link between your previous experience and the present role, showing that your skills can easily be transferred to a new context. Let’s say you come from a background in office administration and are pursuing an entry-level job in marketing and communications. If, in your previous job, you wrote and proofread newsletters and reports, and helped to contribute marketing ideas during staff meetings, then you have relevant experience that can be transferred to your new role. Stress that you are adaptable, and eager to learn and apply yourself to a new environment.
You can even use the fact that you come from a different background to your advantage, by emphasising that you can bring something new and fresh to the position. Your relative inexperience could inject them with some much-needed fresh blood and be exactly what they need.
Gunther also suggests that you use this question to find out more about the company. See if your supposed weakness can complement their business or team. For example, if you are someone who needs and likes structure, find out what their present systems are like. Do they operate like a well-oiled machine that you could easily slot into, or are they in dire need of a systems overhaul that you could help to implement? If their structure is not compatible with your working style, this may not be the company for you – and it’s better for everyone if you figure that out now.
In some cases, it might be acceptable to keep your answer to this question fairly light-hearted – for example, ‘I’m a coffee addict’ – but make sure you follow this up with a serious answer. However, you’ll have to use your judgment here based on the nature of the role and the personality of the interviewer – you don’t want to come across as flippant.
Keep in mind that your prospective employer will call your referees and ask about any weaknesses, so don’t be caught out saying something untrue that will later call your honesty and integrity into question. Outright lies will usually come back to bite you - don't risk it!