“So, what’s your biggest weakness?”
If you’re job-searching, you’re probably prepared to hear this question, but you might not be prepared for interviewers who increasingly refuse to accept old clichés like “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist.”
Since most career guides recommend using the transparent strategy of turning a strength into a weakness, interviewers have caught on to the tactic. They may push back for another answer, one that isn’t an obvious positive in disguise.
To ward off those cliché answers, some interviewers will even hide the question in different wording. Rather than asking, “What are your weaknesses?” they might ask, “What’s an area where you’re working to improve?” Or you might hear, “If I called your last manager and asked her what areas you could improve in, what would she say?”
Candidates who can’t or won’t speak honestly about areas where they could improve may come across as disingenuous, insincere, or lacking in insight and self-awareness—or simply make it impossible to have a real discussion about their potential fitness for the job.
Most interviewers want to talk about your weaknesses not because they’re trying to trip you up but because they genuinely want to be sure you’re a good fit for the job. They hope to avoid putting you in a job where you’ll struggle, and they definitely don’t want to have to fire you a few months from now. Assuming you want to land a position where you’ll thrive, this should be your goal too—and straightforwardness is more likely to get you there.
So then, how to answer?
The best plan of attack is a two-part response. First, think seriously about your weak points. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your work skills or persona, what would it be?
And here’s part two: What are you doing about it?
Your answer should consist of both parts. It might sound something like this: “When I first started in the work world, I found I wasn’t as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of all the tasks I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all of the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing has slipped through the cracks and all my priorities are in line. I’ll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one.”
No one is going to be shocked to hear you have some professional weaknesses; we all do. The question is how those weaknesses will affect how you fit with this particular position, and that’s something you should be interested in, too.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.