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Top 5 Ice Breaker Questions #3: “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”

by Mark Ellwood

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Welcome back to our on-going series on those simple-sounding, yet tricky to answer interview opener questions; ‘Top-5 ice breaker questions and how to handle them’.

For this instalment, we’re looking at the all-time classic:

 

“What is your greatest weakness?”

 

Again, this is a question with a large amount of website and blog real estate dedicated to it. However, it’s far to say that the advice of some of these guides is much better than some of the others. Here is our take, from many years’ experience in the recruitment industry.

 

Variations

The question can be asked in a variety of ways, such as:

  • “What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?”

  • “Tell me about a development goal you’ve set yourself?”

  •  “What would you most like to change or improve about yourself?”

 
 

What's being asked?

 

As you can see from the variations above, the question is actually an indirect way to assess development needs – particularly soft skills. Any answer you give, even trying the dodge the question (don’t do this) gives an indication of the real you, the person behind the interview façade. So the real questions here are:

 
  • Are you capable of doing the job well?

  • How much development do you need?

  • Will you successfully fit into the organisation and culture?

 
 

What's being assessed here?

 

Along with answering the above questions, how you answer is also being assessed. The interviewer is looking for the personality traits of self-awareness and honesty. If you know what your weaknesses are, that’s half way to overcoming them and means you’ll be open to, even looking for, training and development to help you do so.

 

How to answer?

This question is one of the trickier ones to answer. There’s good advice, there’s old advice that is no longer good, and there’s poor advice. You also have to tread carefully through the potential minefields this question represents, some of which we’ll highlight through the rest of this post.

To answer the question, you’ll need a concise, honest reply that highlights how you are aware of weak areas and how you have started to, or intend to, remedy the situation.

The five rules of thumb for this answer are:

  • Keep it brief. Once again, as with all these ice-breaker questions, the key to success is brevity. Don’t say so little that it sounds like you’re ducking or avoiding the question. Equally, don’t launch into a five-minute monologue like the interviewer is your therapist

  • Be realistic. Avoid presenting a strength as a weakness (“I’m a perfectionist and workaholic”). This is often given as advice – and falls into the category of old advice that is no longer good. It’s an old trick and you’re likely to get follow up questions from an unsatisfied interviewer trying to find a genuine weakness, so don’t try it. It also sounds like you’re trying to hide genuine weaknesses. Equally, don’t pretend you don’t have a weakness. We’re all human. This would just show that you’re unprepared for the interview

  • Don’t lie. Some people will suggest this. This is poor advice, for fairly obvious reasons

  • Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. While it is important not to lie, you also need to be aware of the essential skills for the role and not mention anything as a weakness that is an essential part of the job (this is one of the minefields). If you’re applying for a telephone sales role, don’t say you’re nervous on the phone. If the job spec requires someone who ‘works well under pressure’, do not say that you struggle with pressure

  • Don’t go off-piste. Equally, don’t go off-piste. Even recently, we’ve seen several examples of advice on this topic advising you bring up non-essential skills. This is basically telling you to ‘not shoot yourself in the foot’ (see above). However, one example given was for a person applying for a nursing job, and the advice was to discuss difficulties with group presentations. We’d advise against this kind of thing. You want to avoid going completely away from the job’s natural work environment. Yes, nurses do occasionally give group presentations, but it’s so unusual that it’s almost irrelevant. It’s a bit like applying for a role in shared services front line customer services and discussing your problems creating PowerPoint presentations. Either the job description mentions this specifically, in which case you shouldn’t be discussing it as a weakness, or it doesn’t involve this at all, in which case this is either making up a weakness or using an irrelevant weakness to avoid the question. This goes back to point #2 – be realistic. In fact, one blog we read said “Some interviewers may appreciate how you dodged the question. Others may not, so use caution with this type of answer”. But how do you know how your interviewer will take this? You don’t, of course. So, don’t do it.

 
 

Pro Tip: Have 3 weaknesses ready for your answer

Many interviewers will ask about your ‘strengths and weaknesses’ or ask ‘what your weaknesses are’. In both these cases, ‘weaknesses’ is a plural.

 

 

The four-step answer process:

 

Step 1: Identify weaknesses

You may already know someone of your weaknesses as you may genuinely have taken steps to overcome them – and if so, great for you! Plus, it makes this question a whole lot easier. But If not, you’ll want to decide what your weaknesses are – and as mentioned, you’ll need at least 3. Maybe you get bogged down in the details and don’t finish some work on time? Maybe you are not good at delegation because you don’t trust others to do as good a job as you? Have a real think about this – it’s a positive activity in its own right.

 

Step 2: Identify remedial measures

Decide what steps you’ve taken to overcome these weaknesses.  It could be as much as going to a training and development session specifically designed for what you were struggling with (e.g. team management, cold calling etc.), or as little as making a conscious effort (e.g. to delegate and involve others).

 

Step 3: Identify how this has helped you

Maybe you’re now productive, more efficient, more confident on the phone, or even more respected by colleagues because of your inclusion of them. Maybe through the process of delegation you’ve been shown different ways of tackling problems, learning from others.

 

Step 4: Create a structured answer

The best answers to this question follow the general 4-point structure:

Weakness > Problem > Recovery > Results

Or, in other words, what your weaknesses have been, why that has been a problem, how have you overcome them, and in what ways you have benefitted.

 

Try an example 1

Interviewer: 

“So, tell me, what’s your biggest weakness?”

Interviewee:

“I have found it hard to let what I’m working on go, or to share it with others in the team because I was concerned that others would think I wasn’t capable, and in most cases I think I can do a better job. This has meant that I’ve had a couple of projects in the past where I became overwhelmed. So, I’ve been working on understanding colleagues more, trusting them and sharing and delegating responsibilities. This has actually freed me up to do my own work better and I’ve also learnt some different approaches to the same problems from others”.

 

Let’s look at what this reply tells us:

  • It’s brief and follows the recommended 4-tier structure

  • It’s honest and believable

  • It’s positive – the person has taken action to remedy the weakness and seen a positive outcome from that

  • It shows that the person wasn’t previously, but is now, a real team player (In fact, reading between the lines, this is ‘I’m a workaholic but now I’m also a team player’, but delivered in a much more subtle and acceptable way). In that way, it has tuned a negative into a positive

 
 

Try an example 2

 

Interviewer: 

“Tell me about your weaknesses?”

Interviewee:

“There have been times when I’ve been a bit too blunt and direct and I’ve sometimes come across as cold and uncaring. I’ve tended to criticise without really thinking about how helpful what I’m saying actually is, and this has left people feeling that I’m unhappy with them as people, which hasn’t been my intention at all. When I realised I was doing this, after a 360-feedback session, I started making a conscious effort to consider the consequences of what I was going to say. I’ve been working on constructive criticism and suggesting the way forward, rather than simply writing-off people’s hard work. This has really helped me to discuss problems with team members and find out why things have gone wrong, and it also helps them to understand me as well. I’d like to keep developing these skills because it’s been so helpful”

 

Let’s look at what this reply tells us:

  • It’s brief and follows the recommended 4-tier structure. It also compresses 4 weaknesses (blunt, direct, cold, uncaring) into a single answer and avoids becoming an extended list of weaknesses (one of the minefields) – and therefore too long

  • It’s honest and believable

  • It’s positive – the person has taken action to remedy the weakness and seen a positive outcome from that

  • It shows that the person was hard to work with but is now very inclusive and understanding. It also suggests development of some important diplomacy and team management skills, and a willingness to develop further

 
 

Possible curve balls

 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

You can answer this in the same way. To take the second example above, “I’ve had a tendency to be blunt and direct…” – and then follow with the rest of the answer.

 

Are you working on any developmental goals?

You can answer this in the same way. To take the first example above, “I’ve been working on my delegation and team involvement skills…” – and then follow with the rest of the answer.

 

If I spoke to your current manager, what would they tell me are the areas you need to develop?

You can answer this in the same way. To take the second example above, instead of “When I realised I was doing this, after a 360-feedback session…”, you could say “I realised I was doing this after my manager raised it in a 360-feedback session. They’ve been very helpful in recommending ways to develop in this area…”– and then follow with the rest of the answer.

 

Do it yourself

 

So now you understand this key ice breaker – you should be able to craft your own response and rehearse it until you can remember it without sounding like you’re reciting a learnt passage. As mentioned in the previous articles, the key to this is to remember all the details of the passage, not the exact wording. It may be a little different every time you recite it, but you’ll have all the details to hand.