In a job interview, let your weakness become your strength.

Let's face it – for the vast majority of us, our mistakes and our weaknesses aren't the first topics we'd choose to elaborate on when trying to score a job. But like it or not, 'What is your greatest weakness?' is one of the most common interview questions out there. While you might dread being asked what your weaknesses are, your answer to this question can actually be your secret weapon in a successful job interview.

Why the 'weakness' job interview question?

Interviewers and hiring managers ask about what your weaknesses are for a few reasons. First and foremost, this is a chance for them to assess your capabilities of self-reflection and self-awareness. In any job, whether you are a barrister or a shipyard manager, it's critical to have the ability to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. Interviewers might also ask this question to assess whether you'll be a good fit for the company culture, or simply to get a fuller picture of you as a professional.

There are many different ways an interviewer might ask you this common interview question – not only 'What is your biggest weakness?' Other phrasing you might encounter includes:

  • What are your weakest skills?

  • Tell me about a bad career habit you have.

  • What is your professional Achilles heel?

  • Tell me about a time you failed.

  • Tell me about a difficult career situation and how you overcame it.

Framing your 'greatest weakness' answer

There's no denying that this question can be a cause for anxiety. Talking about our greatest weaknesses can put us in a vulnerable place, and it's certainly not as confidence-boosting as talking about our strengths and our successes. But with adequate preparation, you can give an inspiring answer that actually boosts the interviewer's confidence in you. It all comes down to how you frame and answer the question.

Tell a story

The first rule to follow when framing your answer is to be specific and give examples. Vague answers like 'I'm very forgetful' or 'I'm not a good listener” won't cut it. So as you're preparing, keep in mind that for each weakness you consider telling the interviewer, come up with relevant anecdotes showing how this weakness impacted some aspect of your career or working life.

For example, instead of just saying that you're forgetful, consider telling an anecdote like this:

In my last position, I often struggled with forgetting to write down certain tasks. I really received a wake-up call when I forgot the deadline for an important presentation. I eventually got it done in time, but I had to stay up all night working on it, and I also knew I had disappointed my boss.

Share what you learned

Telling a story with specifics shows that you've given considerable thought to your setbacks and also serves as a springboard for the rest of your answer. After all, telling the interviewer or hiring manager your weakness is only the beginning of your answer to this question. Equally important to giving a knock-out answer is telling the interviewer what you've learned from this weakness.

Here's an example of how you can follow up the previous story about being forgetful:

After some reflection, I saw that I was letting things slip through the cracks because I wasn't following some basic rules of organisation. I didn't take notes at meetings and I didn't keep a mobile calendar. I realised that being forgetful was just a symptom of a broader problem of being organised.

Show your growth plan

These examples show your capacity to be self-reflective, which – don't forget –  is one of the main reasons interviewers ask this question. To top it off, share with the interviewer what you did – and what you're actively doing – to improve upon your weakness. This could be anything from a training course you've enrolled in to a new approach you've decided to take.

To round out the example, here's what you could say to show what you're doing to improve on your weakness:

I started keeping meticulous notes of every meeting and asking people to look them over and add anything I'd missed. I've also started using a task management software, which keeps me on track for deadlines, and since it's shared with my boss and my team, it keeps me on my toes.

3 steps to a knockout answer

Ultimately, the frame of your answer can be boiled down into three simple steps: explanation, reflection and action. Explain your weakness using a specific anecdote, reflect on what you've learned from identifying the weakness and show how you've taken action to transform the weakness.  

As a general note, it's important to give a genuine, honest answer that reflects something you've truly learned about yourself over the course of your career. Avoid giving a non-answer like 'I have trouble leaving the office because I love working so much.' Interviewers can see right through it. And please, please, whatever you do: Don't say you have no weaknesses.

The fact is that we all have weaknesses, so don't be afraid if this question comes up in an interview. Regardless of what weakness you choose, what really matters is how you present it. A genuine, reflective answer that you've put thought into can raise the interviewer's confidence in you sky-high.

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