What Do Interviewers Want to Hear When they ask ‘What is your Biggest Weakness”By
As if taking your SAT’s, going to university, and choosing a career wasn’t scary enough, now it’s time to interview. Interviewing for a job is scary – you’re finally “in the real world”, and you’re about to be judged based on a piece of paper and your ability to make each of your life experiences sound applicable to the position you are applying for. A common interview question many applicants struggle to answer is “what is your biggest weakness?”.
Many young professionals gripe at the mention of this question and wonder why it’s so frequently asked. If they knew why the question was being asked, maybe answering it would be a little less painful. There are pages upon pages of online message boards offering advice to future young professionals about how to craft the perfect answer to this question. Since it’s the root of so much anxiety when preparing for an interview, I decided to go straight to the sources and ask interviewers directly what they’d like to hear when this question is asked.
The first source I spoke with was Ted Birkhahn, Partner and President at Peppercomm Communications. I asked him what he thought the best way to answer the question “what is your biggest weakness” was. His response was “be honest,” being honest shows a lot about a person’s character. He said, “Candidates who actually answer the question with honesty show a lot about the composition of their character. Those who fake it — and it’s easy to spot the fake ones — risk coming off as disingenuous”.
Although we are taught as kids that honesty is the best policy, this question can feel like a trap. If you admit failure in one area, maybe it will show that you are unqualified for the position. What many people do to get around this is pick faults that aren’t true faults. Ted cautioned that this is not the right approach, adding “It is human nature to avoid admitting weakness or failure, but the truth is we all have our faults and any employer who doesn’t accept this probably is not the place at which you want to be building a career. So, instead of evading the question, embrace it and be ready to talk about how you want to overcome or address the weakness to become a better-rounded professional and team player.”
I agree with Ted’s approach. An interviewer knows that you’re human, and humans aren’t perfect. With that being said, he also mentioned that weaknesses like laziness, being unable to work with other people, “are two of the biggest [weaknesses] to avoid”. Pick a weakness that could be worked on, and that could be improved upon with the help of others.
Deb Brown, a Partner and Managing Director at Peppercomm said something similar with a different strategy. Deb said, “Sometimes interviewees answer ‘My biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’”. Like Ted, Deb doesn’t think this is the correct way to approach this question. Rather, she said, “I think the best way to answer this [question] is to turn weakness around to an opportunity. Weakness is a negative word. And by turning it into an opportunity, you’re being more humble and genuine. For example, ‘Actually the way I prefer to look at this question is what is my opportunity to improve and learn? I like working in a team environment because I learn from others and learn how to work well with others.’ The point here is that you’re answering the question in a more positive way and which benefits you most”. What Deb said is very insightful. Applicants should take the question “what is your biggest weakness” and turn it into an opportunity to showcase your strengths in a humble fashion, rather than saying something like ‘I’m too much of a perfectionist’.
Both Ted Birkhahn and Deb Brown offered great advice about answering the dreaded question, “what is your biggest weakness?”. To all the young professionals who are going out to interview, best of luck! Don’t let this fateful question stress you out – the interviewer might not even ask it. But if they do, take the question as an opportunity to be honest and present your strengths in a humble manner.
by Oona Welman