Woman answering interview questions (CC: Adobe Stock Images)
Some interview questions are intended to test your skill at thinking on your feet or seeing how well you keep your cool (think: “How many golf balls would fill a football field?”) Others are nerve-wracking because you don’t know how honest to be, (for example: “Tell me about yourself.”) The “What’s your biggest weakness?” question falls in the latter category.
For years, interviewees thought, and have often been told, that the best way to answer this query was to pull a bit of anecdotal sleight of hand — reframing a strength as a weakness, such as “I just can’t seem to ever be disorganized! You’d be surprised at how stressful being on top of everything is.” More recently, though, hiring managers have been seeing right through it.
It makes sense that you might want to avoid sharing every work vice or professional flaw at a moment when you most want to be impressive, but there are drawbacks to taking that too far. Share a weakness that obviously isn’t a weakness and you may come across as fake — or worse, avoidant. “What’s this person really hiding?” your interviewer might wonder.
To strike a more realistic balance, Jopwell’s recruiting team recommends two tactics. The first is explaining how something that might initially seem like a winning trait sometimes backfires for you. For example, telling someone that your weakness is perfectionism is a cop out if the only possible drawback is that people hate you for being just so darn good at what you do. However, perfectionism can be a weakness if you explain what that means for your work process. Does that lead you to have trouble with deadlines because you have a hard time letting go of projects in progress and hate making errors? Do you occasionally struggle with working in groups because you like to have the final say and be in charge? It is a good thing to be honest about those matters. For one thing, those issues won’t magically disappear if you get the job, so you want to make sure that you’re hired on the right terms — that is, terms on which you’ll be most successful in the future.
Moreover, this is the perfect time to bring in the second tactic to really shine. You can use this either as a follow-up to this first part or independently. After you state your weakness, be self-reflective about how you have tried to improve it on your own or in partnership with others. Did you sit down and think through patterns of how that weakness came up? Did you strategize with your supervisor after evaluations or by taking the initiative in a meeting?
Your interviewer asks this question because they want to know if you can be honest about things you need to work on, if you are capable of growth, and if you are confident enough to take active steps to either learn from those mistakes or develop professionally — all great traits in a successful long-term hire.