Here’s the exact formula for how to answer the biggest weaknesses question in a job interview

Hiring managers have been asking candidates to identify their biggest weakness in a job interview since the dawn of time, but for many interviewers, it is still unclear what the best answer to this question is.

Contrary to popular belief, candidates should not try to mask a strength as a weakness. Trust us, your interviewer is smarter than to be impressed that you “care too much.” Instead, shockingly, what interviewers want to hear is the truth. The important part about your answer to the biggest weakness question is your delivery in telling the story that you want the interviewer to hear.

Ladders spoke with interview expert Cheryl Johnson, Chief Human Resource Officer at Paylocity, to find out how candidates can craft that story and the best weaknesses job interview examples.

Why do hiring managers ask the “what is your greatest weakness” question in a job interview?

Johnson actually encourages interviewers to not ask the candidates what they view as their biggest weakness. Many interviewers don’t receive proper training and resort to this question because they have been asked about it at some point during their career.

Johnson encourages interviewers to take a look at the reason this question is actually asked and rephrase it in a manner that leads to a positive and productive conversation.

Interviewers that ask this question are actually trying to find out two things about a candidate:

  1. Do you have enough self-awareness to realize the areas that need to work on?
  2. Which areas are you currently trying to improve in?

Instead of asking a candidate to identify their biggest weakness, Johnson recommends asking candidates to identify a skill or trait that they are working on in their current job. With this question, Johnson is trying to identify the things that are brought up during performance reviews or feedback sessions with your leader.

“In a sense, it’s more positively positioning something that everybody has, because everybody has something that they’re working on,” Johnson said.

Hiring managers are trying to understand the things that you need improvement on, so answering this question honestly helps them understand what things you’re going to need some coaching on.

You can use one of these 3 weaknesses job interview examples to get started on crafting your answer to this tough question.

The worst response to the biggest weakness question

  1. “I have no weaknesses.” 
    “I hope people are smart enough to recognize that that’s probably not a good answer, but I’ve been interviewing people for over 20 years and I continually get surprised by some of the answers that show up in an interview,” Johnson said. This answer shows a complete lack of self-awareness and creativity. Johnson recommends staying far away from this answer.
  2. “I try too hard. I care too much. I work too hard.” 
    Johnson doesn’t appreciate when candidates attempt to mask a strength as a weakness because it doesn’t show accurate self-reflection. Instead, it shows that the candidate is attempting to fool the interviewer by only saying what they want to hear.

How to answer the biggest weakness question

“The way I answer this question is to talk about the things you’re going to see show up as things that you may need to coach me on or develop me on,” Johnson said.

Since this question is really about testing the level of self-awareness in a candidate, the best answer is one that is honest and detailed about your “area of opportunity.”

“Whatever the weakness is, it almost doesn’t matter because the ability to describe the things you’re working on with clarity tells me in the interview that you are self-aware,” Johnson said. “The answers that impress me most are the people that are really aware of their opportunities and they can describe them with clarity.”

An interviewer should be realistic and recognize that every single person has something that they’re working on, so being honest and coming to the table and saying, these are the things that I know I need to improve on, just being authentic and real is the best way to ace this question.

Once you identify your weakness, it is imperative that your explanation does not stop there. Even though the interviewer only asked for you to point to a weakness, it’s extremely important to follow-up by explaining how you have been working on this weakness in your current role and how your efforts have actually paid off.

“You can’t count on the interviewer to know how to ask follow-up questions, so as a candidate it’s about telling the story you want them to know about you, even if they don’t ask those questions,” Johnson said.

If you don’t offer ways in which you are working to improve, this is where the question can actually hurt you during an interview, as you are leaving the interviewer with a potentially concerning observation.

Additionally, this question can go awry if the trait you describe as a “weakness” is the most important trait or skill for a person who holds this role to have. If that’s the case, Johnson recommends reconsidering if this role is right for you, not vice versa. In the current tight labor market, chances are there is a job out there that will match your strengths.

Answers to weaknesses job interview examples

Example 1: “My strengths, when taken to the extreme, can actually become an obstacle for people. One of my strengths is focus, which means I’m a dog on a bone and I will get things done no matter what. This is a great strength unless it’s not the thing I’m supposed to be working on. This can become problematic if I’m not working on something you want me to work on because that focus will mean I will get it done even if I shouldn’t. 

How I’ve been combatting this is by keeping a list of tasks assigned to me broken up into a daily and weekly basis. I will check in with my manager to make sure I’m working on the right projects and headed in the right direction.”

Example 2: “Organization and time management are an issue for me. I often have challenges making sure I manage my time appropriately. As a result, here are the three steps I put in place to keep myself organized and manage my time effectively. Since implementing these tactics, I have not missed an interview and I have produced five extra articles per week.”

What to do if you don’t know what your weaknesses are

If you struggle to identify your weaknesses, Johnson recommends going to current colleagues to find out.

“Go ask people closest to you…because they know,” Johnson said. “Ask them to give you examples and think about those examples and start thinking about things you can do to understand your weaknesses and think about ways to remedy your weaknesses.”