It is the most difficult question you will come across while being interviewed. And it will almost always surprise you.

Because it completely changes the mood for you. There you are in your best business outfit, wearing a big smile on your face, ready to put your best foot forward, to show yourself in the best light…

And then all of a sudden they ask you to talk about your deficiencies? What’s next? Maybe you will be asked to polish the shoes of other candidates?

Don’t panic. It is a normal part of every interview. It is a tricky question, but if you follow our advice, you will ace it! Read the article carefully and you will increase your chances greatly!

WHY DO THEY ASK ME THAT QUESTION?

Believe it or not, recruiters all over the world are not coming up with the same question by accident – just off the top of their head. The answer to that question could be very telling of the character of the interviewee. Everything you say, or don’t say may be used against you.

Are you objective in your self-perception?

By asking you what your most substantial weakness is, recruiters primarily aim to get an idea of the objectivity of your self-perception. In other words, is it possible that you think too highly of yourself? Or maybe you are too self-conscious?

In 1991, David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper, named “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”, where they study the subject. In it, the two predict that incompetent people will have more difficulty recognizing their true level of ability than competent individuals. As a result, incompetent people will dramatically overestimate themselves. The results proved the theory. It is called the Dunning–Kruger effect.

It gives recruiters reason to believe that if someone overestimates their abilities or speaks too highly of themselves, they are probably not very well skilled and are missing the cognitive skills to recognize weaknesses not only from themselves, but also in others.

What is more, overestimating yourself usually comes hand-in-hand with bad reactions to constructive criticism. That could cause a lack of progress in a position, unfulfilled goals, interpersonal issues within the team, lacking satisfaction from the job, and ultimately, losing the employee.

And if you go to the other extreme, underestimating yourself, you might be facing missed opportunities, misplaced credit for success, lacking satisfaction from the job, and, again, losing the employee.

Are you honest?

In theory, recruiters have your CV and your references to judge you by. Your entire work history is supposed to speak to them and they are supposed to walk in the shoes of investigators, learn everything about you and then talk to you as the last step.

But that is a false perception. Recruiters and hiring managers are pretty much forced to take you on your word for most of the information you exchange during your interview.

If you are too tempted to show yourself in the best light possible, even at the expense of the truth, they will easily get you with that question.

If you are not in the mood to be honest, this question will startle you, you will make a big pause that will break the entire flow of the conversation. You will not be able to answer in any way that makes sense.

Only if you are willing to be open, to be candid, then you will have no problem sharing your own concerns about your work. Only that way you can establish a connection of trust.

Then, it will be the job of the interviewers to decide if your presentation of yourself matches the profile they are looking for.

WHAT NOT TO DO:

It is a loaded question. Everything you say may be used against you in the court of HR. Here are three things you should never do when you are asked ‘the weaknesses question’:

Don’t freak out

You may feel like you are on trial here, and you might be close to the truth, but it is not a good idea to try and plead the fifth. You cannot afford to stay quiet, to say that you just ‘Can’t think of anything right now’. Yes, we know ‘It is kind of a difficult question’. Yes, if you make enough of an awkward pause, the hiring manager will continue with the interview without your answer. But you must be aware you have failed the question.

This is not a TV show. You cannot just ask for the next question. By skipping, you are telling your desired future employer you are easily startled, you are incapable of seeing yourself in a bad light, you are incapable of taking simple decisions, or you are incapable of sacrificing your ego for a greater cause. Would you hire yourself? Probably not.

Instead, prepare in advance that this question is coming. Come to terms with the fact the recruiters will see advantages and disadvantages of your profile anyway. Look at your personality and come up with an honest answer and embrace a strategy of openly discussing your flaws with your future employer.

Don’t be too critical of yourself

Do not scare your recruiters away. Showing honesty and insight by pointing out your weaknesses is of value, but they also actually will judge your answer. There are lines you cannot cross. Do not be stupid, you do not want to put yourself in the category of the ‘unhirable’.

There are traits all recruiters value. It is NOT a good idea to tell them you do not possess those.

Here are, according to Forbes, the top personality traits employers look for:

  • At all times, maintain a professional impression of yourself. From dressing well for your interview, holding the right demeanor and attitude, to presenting yourself as trustworthy, reliable and accountable. Avoid listing anything as your weakness that might come across as unprofessionalism.
  • High energy. Enthusiasm, out of the box ideas and high spirit are valued. Avoid creating the impression you find it easy to spark interest but get easily disenchanted with your projects. Laziness is not sexy to potential employers.
  • Among the top 3 qualities most valuable for recruiters, healthy confidence is essential for your interview mood. Answering your ‘weaknesses question’ without hesitating, pausing and stuttering will already be a sign you are brave enough to talk about yourself objectively. For pro tips how to balance weakness-talk and confidence, read the article until the end.
  • Self-monitoring. Avoid mentioning among your weaknesses anything that will leave the impression you are not self-sufficient in your training or your everyday work – that you need too much guidance, that you cannot prioritize well or that you cannot take decisions by yourself.
  • Intellectual curiosity. ‘The ability to problem solve and the ongoing dedication to learning new technologies or solutions that will continue to advance in the changing workplace.’ Make sure it is not among your listed weaknesses that you get stuck, you are not searching for alternatives and better progress.

Don’t do the negative spin on a positive trait

‘I work too hard’

‘Oh, do you now…’ – that is all that will pass through the recruiters head.

They have heard that one. And no, they do not believe you for a second. You are just making a fool out of yourself. Answering that you work too hard is a very easy way to get your name immediately crossed off the short list.

Literally saying any real weakness will be a better decision. At least you will not come across as an overly confident, dishonest, hopeless jerk.

‘I am too much of a perfectionist’

‘I aim too high’

Are you really?

Forget about the fact that it is immediately obvious you are trying to spin the question in your favor and you are breaking the logic of your interviewer, who is actually looking to get some valuable information out of your answer.

It is also a mockery of a serious problem. Overworking will at some point lead to a burnout. Sick perfectionism got Steve Jobs kicked out of his own company because it was impossible to agree on anything with him.

By answering with an exaggerated positive trait and a smug smile, you are just showing ignorance of how toxic such behaviors can actually be for a company.

And you are not getting a second call.

HOW TO RESPOND TO “WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST WEAKNESS?”

Okay, now that we covered the don’ts, what are the dos?

Are you ready? Read this carefully, because this is the secret of acing the answer to your “weaknesses question”:

The trick is to select a topic that objectively has arguments for and arguments against, where you truly stand on the one side of it.

Why can’t you say ‘I am lazy.’ as your greatest weakness? Because that is an objectively bad quality in an employee. You cannot put it in a positive light, it will immediately make them dislike you.

Why can’t you say ‘I work too hard’ as your greatest weakness? Because it is such a cliché of a positive quality that you will come across as dishonest and ignorant of the actual consequences overworking can cause.

And you cannot stay silent because the recruiter will either think you cannot identify your disadvantages or that you have so many that you do not want to share.

Here are several good examples:

I am not always fast to close a sale

A very good example that we agree on with The Monster – if you are a sales person you legitimately have arguments for and against closing your sale with urgency.

On the one hand, as a sales agent the purpose of your position is ultimately closing a sale. Yes, it is a process, but, objectively speaking, the more and greatest sales you close the more successful you are as an employee.

On the other hand, if you push your client too much, your demeanor may come as off-putting. You need to provide information and listen to their needs and provide more information, and listen again…

By saying you are not always fast to close a sale you show recognition of a legitimate issue, about which every company and sales leader has their own opinion.

Moreover, you are starting a conversation and you are showing you are open to some fine-tuning of your way of work you can do together with your future employer.

I do not like multitasking

According to Psychology Today multitasking is nothing more than a myth. The ability of doing tasks simultaneously has been debunked by neuroscience.

To put it simply, listening to music while working is not possible. You are not doing the two things simultaneously. The brain creates the illusion of it by quickly switching your attention from your work to the tunes and vice versa.

This switching on and off is costing you productivity. Each time you switch, you will lose time and concentration. Ultimately, you will also feel more tired.

And while you can sacrifice your listening to music, as unpleasant as it might be, when it comes to work, we are always expected to do more than one task.

Telling your future employer you do not like multitasking will be very believable. No one likes it.

However, mentioning it specifically as your weakness will tell them you are open to handling multiple responsibilities, while at the same time you recognize the need of strict planning and prioritization.

I am working on balancing planning and executing

There is evidence to suggest that the key to true creativity hides in balancing planning and executing on your long term tasks.

Let’s say you have a paper to write.

Start too early, and you are missing out on opportunities to include out of the box ideas in your work. Creative ideas almost never come to you at your desk, while you are concentrated on your task. They come to you in the shower, in the movie theater while munching on your popcorn, while you are cooking and eating your dinner.

If you start too early, you will just write generic things without much thinking about your subject.

Start too late and you will not have the time to act on all of your original ideas.

Tell your employer you are looking for the perfect balance and they will know you are not stuck in your ways, you are trying to be flexible and give each task your best.

Watch this video of Adam Grant explaining the connection between original thinking and putting off the execution of your task:

Your weakness must be your weakness

While we are giving you examples, they are only supposed to explain the logic of how you are supposed to pick your answer.

You cannot just pick one of our suggestions and run with it.

Don’t forget. One of the most important purposes of this question is for you to be able to prove you are honest. Not just about this one question but also for your entire interview.

Do not underestimate the recruiters. Years of speaking to job candidates improves their intuition to perfection. They will know if you are being unauthentic.

PRO TIPS ON ‘THE WEAKNESSES QUESTION’

Picking a weakness or two to list to the recruiter is just half the battle. Yes, you have now proven yourself to be authentic, to have insight, to be responsible enough to share your concerns with your future employer even if it means you are sacrificing putting yourself in the best light.

But that leaves you with a weakness in their eyes. If we focus on the essence of the question, they want to have in mind what will be their greatest hurdle when they work with you in the future.

Our pro tips will help you convince the recruiters you are not just brave enough to discuss your weakness, you are not just smart enough to identify it. You are willing to work to improve yourself.

Pro tip #1:  My greatest weakness used to be…

You can start by saying what used to be your biggest weakness in the past. You will surprise your recruiters by starting with that so keep it short.

But by starting with the past, you will establish a narrative of you continuously working to improve yourself. You are looking for the greatest issue that stands between you and your career, you identify it, you overcome your weaknesses.

When you identify flaws of the past, you shouldn’t be as worried about the rules. Even bad qualities such as laziness and being unprofessional can be justified as long as you got over those.

Surprisingly, even ‘working too hard’ will work in the past tense. If you have realized how toxic it suddenly became for your motivation, for your enthusiasm and your results, if you experienced a burnout and recovered. That is a legitimate concern to share.

One old rule still stands and one new rule comes in here. The old rules is it still has to be true. The new rule is, you are only allowed to go from more serious flaws to more unimportant issues.

Pro tip #2:  The way I improved upon my weakness in the past was…

By quickly going over how you improved in the past you are making clear that A) You are not one to sit around – once you realize there is an issue you will work on it and B) You are successful in your strategies of self-improvement.

Make sure you go over three important stages of working on your flaws in the past.

Number 1. You discovered your greatest weakness by looking at your results and continually analyzed how your behavior is leading to undesirable outcome for you.

Number 2. You worked until you saw results. The measures you took were not simple. And you added more as you went. Until your results showed you are doing better.

Number 3. You are still working on breaking your bad habits today. You are still careful to never allow the same mistakes.

Pro tip #3:  I will apply the same strategy to work on my weakness now.

Once you have convinced the recruiter you have gone through this once, it will be way easier for them to believe you will be able to overcome whatever you think is your greatest issue now.

Create the similarities in your narrative. ‘Once again, I knew I had something to work on’. ‘Just like before, I knew I needed a small push to see a great difference in my results’. ‘I am willing to work on this with the same persistence and stubbornness until I know I can continue onwards without anything holding me back.’

Pro tip #4:  What do you think…

Just as we established in the beginning of the article, the question about your greatest weakness will almost always surprise you. It will always transform the tone of the interview – from you putting yourself in the best possible light, to taking a step back and talking about your faults.

Whenever you are ready with your answer, don’t linger in that mood. The more time you spend on that question, the more serious your weakness will look.

Pass the ball onwards. Ask your recruiter a question:

  • Do you get that answer a lot from the other candidates?
  • Do you think this is a serious weakness in the context of the job?
  • What advice would you have for me – how can I avoid this standing between me and my best results if I work for you?

Asking a question back will tell the recruiters you are willing to reach out for help whenever you feel your personal flaws are affecting your job and you are willing to work together – receive guidance, observe your results more closely, you are open to constructive criticism.

CONCLUSION

A new job is a chance for a new start. Maybe that is why we dislike talking about our weaknesses on our first interview. We are scared to bring past mistakes in our future adventure.

However, being unauthentic is not a risk you should be willing to take either. Taking the chance and responding to ‘the weaknesses question’ right will show you are prepared, and you are open to work towards improvement.

Trust your recruiter. They have more information than you. If they know what they are doing, they will come to terms with your weakness as long as you are right for the position. And if you are not, they will not place you there. And by that they will do you a favor.

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