The Only Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”

The Only Way to Answer "What's Your Greatest Weakness?"

Ace this tricky job interview question

I’m inclined to agree with Liz Ryan that “What’s your greatest weakness?” is a truly terrible job interview question. I have never asked it, and never plan to. But I’m also willing to bet that almost everyone has faced it at some point, so we might as well be prepared.

Unfortunately, most of the advice I’ve seen about this questionable question has been pretty terrible in its own right! But thankfully, there’s a simple and smart way to answer. Read on for the one answer that will cut through all the crap surrounding “your greatest weakness” and set you apart from your fellow job seekers.

For the Love of God, Why??

No interviewer wants to know that you’ve spent $1000 on Candy Crush power-ups or that you just can’t resist an anchovy-topped pizza. So why do they ask this question?

Three possible reasons:

First: They don’t know any better – most people have never been trained on how to conduct a job interview, and they think that’s what you’re supposed to ask. Somebody asked them once, and they’re just carrying on the cycle.

Second: They are testing your self-awareness and capacity for change. While this is actually an excellent goal for a job interview, asking someone “WYGW” isn’t likely to accomplish it. Let’s be honest here – no one is likely to volunteer their actual flaws in a job interview (if they are even aware of them). Instead of getting insight into a candidate’s character, it’s an exercise in polite fibbing.

Third: The interviewer is trying to dent your confidence by forcing you to think about your shortcomings. Eww. Who does that to someone they are considering as a future colleague?

If you think your interviewer is after reason #3, then that’s your signal to run! But if it’s just a lack of interviewer awareness or skill, you might as well come up with a decent answer.

What NOT to Say

How NOT to Answer "What's Your Greatest Weakness?" "I'm a Perfectionist!"

The standard advice for WYGW is to pick something that isn’t really a weakness, like, “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I work too hard.” Nowadays we call this kind of response the “humblebrag.”

UGH.

If someone said either of those things to me in an interview (although of course I would never ask WYGW in the first place), it would be an immediate red flag. First of all, this person is full of BS. And on top of that, perfectionism and workaholism are major problems, and I don’t want to hire someone who thinks either one is something to brag about.

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The Smart Answer

There’s really only one good way to answer the dreaded WYGW. Here it goes: “Well, I’ll be new at ________, so it will take me a little while to learn the ropes.” For example:

Career-changer: “Well, I’ll be new at the ice cream industry, so it will take me a little while to learn the ropes. But based on what I’ve learned in the frozen yogurt industry, I’m confident I can get past that phase and start contributing pretty quickly.”

Company-jumper: “Well, I’ll be new to Lamps Etcetera, so it will take me a little while to learn the ropes. But it sounds like your structure is pretty similar to the one we have in place at Lamps Unlimited, so I’m confident I’ll figure it out quickly.”

Promotion-seeker: “Well, I’ll be new to the Vice President level, so it will take me a little while to learn the ropes. But I’ve been reading up on leadership and getting advice from my mentor, and I’m confident I can take my management skills to the next level.”

Why is this the perfect answer to WYGW? It allows you to sidestep that polite-fibbing awkwardness – you’re just acknowledging reality. And, more importantly, it demonstrates self-awareness: taking on a new role, even if you’ve worked in the company or department for years, always brings on a learning curve of some kind. It might even lead to a richer interview dialogue – and that’s a good thing!

One More Thing…

My entire career, I’ve kept a mental file of “things I will never do when I’m in charge” – and you should too! Make sure to tuck WYGW into the file for that future day when you’re the one conducting the interview.

What’s your experience with WYGW? Let me know in the comments!

How NOT to Answer "What's Your Greatest Weakness?" "I work too hard."

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4 comments

  1. Don says:

    Post provides great insight into the ditching the tired old WYGW interview question. Hiring the right people for your culture with the right skills is a critical leadership activity. So create effective hiring processes to get this right!

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