How to Answer the #1 Most Dreaded Interview Question
Use this simple formula to breeze through “What’s your greatest weakness?”
If we’re being honest, all of us have weaknesses.
We don’t floss every night like we’re supposed to. We hit the snooze a billion times before finally getting out of bed. We forget to send the occasional email or follow-up.
We’re all . . . well . . . human.
But in the format of an interview, there isn’t much room to be human. There are two parties, both trying to size each other up. Both trying to put on their most charming selves. Trying to show off a little bit.
If the job and the applicant wind up being a good fit, neither party wants to miss out on the opportunity because they look sloppy. So interviewers and interviewees both put on a show.
The fact that there isn’t room for “real” discussion in most interview formats makes the #1 most dreaded interview question incredibly powerful. It breaks through the facade of the interview niceties. It throws a curveball, halting the positivity that has probably defined the interview to that point.
And it often catches professionals off guard.
So today, let’s talk first about how NOT to answer this tough question. Then, we’ll walk through a simple formula you can use to knock it out of the park.
How NOT to talk about your weaknesses.
Last week, I participated in a virtual volunteer event.
The event was with a national non-profit that works with college students to help them transition into roles in business and technology. As a volunteer, my job was to participate in a mock interview with a handful of the students. And provide feedback that would help them ace their next interviews.
I had a list of questions, most of them pretty standard. “Tell me about a time” this and “What’s your greatest accomplishment” that. And that students were able to handle those pretty easily.
But I didn’t stop there. For each one, I asked the question, “What is your greatest weakness?”
As expected, every student I spoke with struggled. They paused or asked for a moment. And when they did answer the question, they all did so the same way. The way I’d heard countless other young people answer it.
They answered it simply. With no explanation.
I took notes as they were speaking. Here were a few of their responses:
- “I don’t always reach out when I should.”
- “I don’t have as much experience as other people.”
- “I don’t communicate well.”
In isolation, these weaknesses sound like they could be non-starters. They sound like the kind of characteristics that could really slow down a team’s deliverables and impact the productivity of the worker.
In other words, they sound like problems (especially for a hiring manager).
So, without fail, I gave the same feedback to each one of the students. I explained, first and foremost, that the interviewer wasn’t looking for the answer to a multiple-choice question. They didn’t want to hear a single weakness and then move on.
Instead (and this is important) they wanted to know the process. They wanted to know how you, as a worker, would address a weakness. How you would resolve it. And how you would keep it from impacting the job.
A weakness needs a plan.
Once I explained the nature of the question to the students, they got it. They understood that instead of an answer, the interviewer wanted a plan. That it wasn’t sufficient to just name a weakness and move on.
If a weakness in isolation is a problem, then a weakness with a plan is the cure. It shows growth and maturity.
You see, sharing a weakness is a sign of humility. A boastful or self-absorbed person will often struggle thinking of a weakness. And that alone is valuable information to an interviewer. But if someone is able to share an honest and truthful weakness, that shows a level of introspection.
Once the interviewer is confident that you are not a sociopath (incapable of seeing yourself clearly), they can begin to wonder what your weakness will look like at the office. Will it be a stumbling block? Will it lead to bad reviews or you eventually leaving the company?
The interviewer doesn’t want that at all.
And that’s where you swoop in.
You address their concerns with a well-articulated plan. You explain how you currently — and plan to continue — addressing the weakness. You explain the lessons you’ve learned from the weakness and how working through struggle has made you a more well-rounded person.
You show a little growth.
The simple formula.
With this in mind, it’s time to look at how to structure your answer to the dreaded question, “What’s your greatest weakness?”
First, you want to share the nature of your weakness.
Go ahead, let it out. Talk about your weakness. But keep one thing in mind. It is often most helpful to share your weakness in the form of feedback you’ve received in the past. “My manager coached me in this particular area.” This shows that you are open to feedback and know how to internalize it.
Second, you want to explain the downsides of the weakness.
In this second stage, don’t be afraid to explain how the weakness could limit someone if not dealt with. Draw a picture of the weakness in action, and how it would lead to negative results. This shows you recognize the real-life impact of a particular kind of weakness.
Third, you want to talk about your plan.
Once you’ve made the weakness sound like a fire-breathing dragon, you explain your plan to extinguish it. You describe, in detail, the steps you’ve taken in the past to squash your weakness. And you highlight the impact your actions had on the business. How they led to success.
Finally, you want to paint the future picture.
This last part is about tying your plan to your future role at the company. You can admit that you continue to work on your weakness — real weaknesses do not go away overnight, after all. But most importantly, talk about how you will carry your plan forward into your new role.
The formula in action.
Now that we have a formula in mind, let’s take a look back at the answers my students gave during their mock interviews. And let’s see how the formula would have turned their responses from problems into solutions.
Student #1 — “I don’t always reach out when I should.”
Instead, say something like this.
- My manager recently told me that I don’t always reach out when I should. This was an attribute that I knew about, but in my mind reaching out was the same as bothering my coworkers. And I did not want to do that.
- But after my manager gave me the feedback, I began to reach out more. I tried to do so when my coworkers had downtime. And if I couldn’t avoid that, I would offer to help them with their work if they could find time to answer a question for me. They appreciated the offer!
- This allowed me to get the answers I needed. And I was able to deliver my projects on time. Moving forward, I plan to be more assertive in reaching out for help when I need it and doing so in a way that’s productive.
Student #2 — “I don’t have as much experience as other people.”
Instead, say something like this.
- I’m very aware that I don’t have the same experience as others in the market or even my coworkers. I’m new to my career, and I haven’t had a lot of opportunities yet to deliver important work for the company.
- But I’m hungry, and I’m constantly looking for ways to learn and grow. At work, I ask questions and watch those around me to see how they deliver. And I’m constantly reading up on the industry to learn as much as I can. I want to learn and grow and grab experience whenever available!
- And I bring a lot of other things to the table. Passion, determination, and grit. Those are attributes that go beyond experience. So I plan to leverage my tenacity to help me in my future roles as I’m working to build up experience.
Student #3 — “I don’t communicate well.”
Instead, say something like this.
- I was recently told by some colleagues that my verbal communication needs work. I’m more of an introvert, and I process my thoughts internally, so there are times when it’s difficult for me to articulate them. I know my colleagues need me to be a good communicator to work well with them.
- After I got that feedback, I began to think a lot about my communication. I thought about other ways to keep in touch. For instance, I’m much more comfortable writing, so I started sending regular emails to my colleagues with the information they needed. This helped them out a lot!
- I know that verbal communication continues to be a growth area for me. And I’m planning to read up on communication techniques and maybe even get into a Toastmasters class to bring my skills up to speed. But in the meantime, I’ve found some good alternative communication styles I can use to be effective.
“What is your greatest weakness?” doesn’t have to be an iceberg on your way to a new job. Instead, keep an eye out for it and maneuver around. Push through your instinct to blurt out the first weakness you think of, and focus on your plan and your explanation.
Remember the formula:
- Share your weakness (as feedback).
- Explain the downsides.
- Talk about your plan.
- Paint the future picture.
Using this approach will allow you to address the concerns that pop up in the mind of an interviewer. It’ll show you are aware of your flaws, but not bound by them. And it’ll help your interview see that you know how to work through a problem to find a solution.
Do this, and you’ll find yourself breezing through the #1 most dreaded interview question . . . and well on your way to an awesome job offer!
How do you tackle the dreaded interview question? Drop a note in the comments below. And join the Young Corporate Medium page or Facebook group where we’re talking about career success, trending business news, and more.
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