“What is your weakness?” has long been one of the most dreaded questions for interviewees and interviewers alike. It’s a tricky question to navigate, and managers, professional coaches, and college counselors all seem to teach different ways to tackle it. While everyone has their own strategy, most people advocate for spinning the answer in order to minimize the trait and emphasize other positive traits.
In my experience, most job seekers seem to follow this suggestion and come up with responses that are not necessarily authentic but instead are meant to either dodge the question entirely or steer the topic towards positive traits. A couple of the answers I get the most, which interestingly also happen to be at the top of Google search results for “greatest weakness,” are:
- My greatest weakness is that I sometimes have a hard time letting go of a project. I am a critic of my work. I can always find something that needs to be improved or changed.
- My greatest weakness is that I am an overachiever.
As a hiring manager, I was recently surprised when a C-level candidate responded with the top search result from Google. After hearing his response, I got curious and further researched the topic. I wanted to see how world-renowned leaders, including U.S. presidents, have answered this question. I quickly found that many of our greatest leaders did no better with the question than the average job-seeker.
For example, in a 2008 interview with Barack Obama, Katie Couric asked, “What one personal flaw do you think might hinder your ability to be president?” Obama responded, “I don’t think there’s … a flaw that would hinder my ability to function as president. I think that all of us have things we need to improve. You know, I said during the primary that my management of paper could sometimes be a problem.”
More research led to finding similar responses from business executives and world leaders. I was surprised and a bit discouraged by these responses.
There are a few problems with these types of responses. One is that, in an attempt to spin the answer, you can end up actually digging a hole for yourself where you inadvertently acknowledge major areas of weakness. A second is that you, and your interviewee, miss the real purpose and benefit of this type of question.
Acknowledging weaknesses shows self-awareness, a willingness to grow, an ability to think critically, and a commitment to professional growth. The real goal of the question isn’t to focus on weak traits, but rather to show a candidate’s willingness and ability to proactively address weaknesses and to consistently grow.
With that in mind, I suggest that you don’t think about the question in terms of how you can dodge it. Instead, I challenge you to think about it authentically and to use your response – whether it’s in an interview, as part of formal professional development, or simply part of your personal development – as a way to grow as a leader and a person. Here are a few tips to help you with the process.
How to Address Your Weaknesses
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone has weaknesses and that we’re all in different places when it comes to addressing those weaknesses. This means that there’s no one “right” answer for how to do this. Instead, you need to assess where you are – or where your employees are – and make a plan based on that.
If You Already Know Your Weaknesses
Many leaders and their teams have already gone through the process of identifying weaknesses. If you already know your weakness through 360-degree review or another way, be candid about those weaknesses and open about your opportunities for growth.
If you’ve developed a framework or plan to address specific areas of growth, then share your plan. Even better, share the controls you’ve built around your weakness to ensure that they won’t impact your effectiveness at work.
If You Don’t Know Your Weaknesses
If you’re thinking about your weaknesses just because you think an interviewer or manager might ask about them, then it’s worth taking a step back and looking more broadly at the situation. Knowing and addressing weaknesses is an integral part of your career development. If it’s not something your current employer has encouraged, then this is something you should address head-on.
You should reach out to your managers, co-workers, and clients to seek feedback. Additionally, if you’re considering changing jobs, the fact that you’re not getting this type of development and feedback could be an indication that a change is necessary.
Regardless of whether you’re preparing for an interview or not, you want to gather as much feedback as possible, identify areas of weakness, and put together a plan to address those weaknesses.
Even if this is a process you go through on your own, you want to be open and public about your plan. As much as possible, you should create an accountability network to help keep you on track with your development plans.
If you happen to have an interview coming up, explain the effort you have made to identify your weakness and plan to turn it around. If not, use the process to help you grow.
If You’re a Senior Leader
Leaders that have risen to excellence in every role and responsibility are undoubtedly self-aware and skilled at identifying and addressing weaknesses. They’re skilled at recognizing flaws and effectively turning them into strengths.
But, even if you’re skilled with the process, there is always room to push yourself even further. For example, try looking at weaknesses as situational. Depending on the situation one is in, one may have specific strengths and weaknesses. After all, we all know that even a mighty fish cannot survive outside of water for more than a few moments.
Every situation gives a window of opportunity to understand one’s weakness, improve, and turn the situation around or drop the initiative. So, the term “fail fast.” Use these micro-moments as much as possible to assess and address your weaknesses.
Perhaps the reason I’m so uncomfortable with the standard response to “what is your weakness” is because of how much I value the process of identifying and addressing weaknesses. It’s how we all grow as leaders, employees, and people.
Keeping that in mind, here are a few final tips of things I do to make sure our team is constantly engaged in this process:
- I ensure that my organization’s deficiencies are not adversely affecting our services to our customers by creating a feedback loop with my customers.
- I build trusted partnerships where partners can candidly give feedback about what is working and what is not working.
- I establish processes and channels of information gathering to understand my stakeholder’s perspectives.
I hope this article helps you think about weaknesses in a new and more productive way. And, I wish you good luck with your career endeavors. Drop a comment or send us a message if you would like to continue the conversation.