A Better Answer to the Question "What is Your Greatest Weakness?"

A common job interview question is “what is your greatest weakness?” (Or some variation of it.)

A common response is to answer in terms of what you are bad at or tend to overdo (but often trying to give it a positive spin by making it seem the flip-side of a strength!).

That’s an unnecessary and unhelpful route to go with that question. The reason is that it misunderstands the nature of a weakness.

A weakness is not what you are bad at. A weakness is any activity that drains you. Or, in other words, a weakness is any activity that depletes you.

Understood in this light, it is not simply the most honest thing to give a straight answer, it’s also the most strategic because you don’t want to have a job that calls upon your weaknesses primarily (for you will be unable to excel and will end every day drained). What you want to do with your weaknesses is make them irrelevant by managing around them. Adjust the position so it doesn’t generally require you to do what weakens you, for example. Or find a partner who is strong where you are weak.

Given these things, here’s an example of a good answer to the question: “What is my greatest weakness? A weakness is an activity that drains you. Understood in this light, one of my greatest weaknesses is falling behind on email. If I let my email go for a few days, I feel like I’m under a pile of nagging, unfinished tasks, and it drains my energy. [Then, you go to how you have addressed the weakness and make it irrelevant:] As a result, I have a daily process for getting my inbox to zero, and I make sure not to skip more than a few days unless circumstances really call for it. I find that as long as I make it a priority to keep my in box processed regularly (which I have a system for), I don’t have to deal with the sense of being drained from a collection of unprocessed and unknown emails.”

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I’m afraid this is just one of the worst articles I’ve read. The above is not a valid response, nor is it a truthful response. A weakness is not “something that drains you”. Playing with my child sometimes “drains me”; that doesn’t make it a weakness. This is ridiculous!

    Clearly in the above example (email) time management and people management skills are lacking; this is the core weakness.

    Please write stuff that makes sense. You’re making us look incompetent.

  • KS

    I don’t believe that an interviewer who asks an interviewee to name his or her greatest weakness really wants to know which activity drains the interviewee the most. I mean, how did you even come up with that?

  • Matt

    The author isn’t claiming that a weakness is anything that tires you. He’s saying that in the workplace, a weakness is something that makes you less able to successfully do your job. And in light of that, what he is suggesting makes sense.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    When police officers pull people over for speeding, they ask people silly questions like “Do you have any dead bodies or nuclear weapons in there?” It sounds like an insanely stupid question – but the reason they ask it is not because they care about your answer (even if you did have nukes in your car, would you admit it?). The reason for the question is that it creates an environment where the officer can observe your reaction and discern if this is just a routine speeding ticket or if there’s something you’re trying to hide.
    I feel that this interview question works the same way. The interviewer cares little for your actual answer but more about your reaction. It creates a strangely uncomfortable environment where they can see your true colors.
    So I can see wisdom in Matt’s answer. It gives the interviewee a chance to share their beliefs about the nature of weaknesses. That brief discussion would tell the interviewer volumes about your strengths-based approach to work and management. They may be excited to hire you because they feel the same, or may decide to pass you over – which may end up being a good thing if you wouldn’t have really fit into the organization.

    My real hope though, is that this interview question will stop being asked. It is kinda a silly question :)

  • http://www.growup318.com Heather Joy

    I’ve actually used this similiar concept before when in interviews.
    The key is to take that question and answer it in a positive light about yourself instead of getting all down on yourself – which I believe is what you were trying to portray.

  • Jordan

    I work as a sales recruiter, do well over a hundred interviews a year and really appreciate this blog posting. If someone answered the question this way it creates an impression, at least to me, that they know something significant about themselves and have done some serious reflection. It would be an unusally thoughtful answer.

  • KS

    “When police officers pull people over for speeding, they ask people silly questions like ‘Do you have any dead bodies or nuclear weapons in there?'”

    They do?? I’ve never been pulled over for speeding, but I understand that officers ask if the driver knows the speed limit or knows how fast he or she was going.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Yes. I don’t know if it’s standard procedure, but it happens. I got pulled over when I was 16 and the officer asked me if I had any guns, hand grenades, or tanks in my car. I’m 30 now, and I still specifically remember him asking about tanks. It was such an odd question, it caught me off guard. Perhaps my nervousness made him suspect I was hiding something else. When he asked me the question, I kinda chuckled. I heard later that laughing or smiling is the “normal” reaction to such an over-the-top question. Friends of mine had similar questions asked of them.
    Maybe it’s just an isolated thing down here.

  • http://www.thegiftoffaith.blogspot.com Miguel

    I’ve always been so tempted to answer this question on applications with: “I don’t have any. I’m practically perfect in every way!”
    I mean seriously, we’re supposed to be displaying ourselves in the best light possible, and they’re asking us to saying something honest that will not get us the job? Would you ever ask an engineer about his skill as a singer in an interview? Of course not! It’s irrelevant! The same goes with weaknesses. You want to know somebody has the skills and ability to do the job well, and you’re not going to discover that by asking if the don’t have the skills and abilities to not do the job well. Too many double negatives!

  • David L

    I like this approach to answering the question, primarily because I think the question itself is absurd. The way it’s phrased, it’s very difficult to answer it without sounding incompetent, delusional, or pretentious. This is one strategy for avoiding all three possibilities. Cheers!

  • Zach Baker

    I like this. After all, if you asked this question to Superman, you wouldn’t expect him to say “I always feel like an outsider.” No! The answer is KRYPTONITE! You’re being interviewed for a job, not analyzed by a psychologist.

    Therefore this kind of answer is much more helpful and practical in a job interview than the usual introspective answers. We would do better to think about what our Kryptonite is instead of what our tragic flaw is.

  • Jeff T

    I was a cop for 10-years and used to ask the nuclear bomb (or dead bodies, exotic animals, what have you) question. They’re looking to see if you laugh at the question (which means you have nothing in the car to hide) or if you matter of factually answer no, which raises the suspicion that you might be hiding a kilo of cocaine under your seat. I once grabbed a bag of weed from under a guys seat once and he said, “I thought you were just searching for ‘small nuclear devices’ in there.” I told him I was, but happened to find the bag of weed while looking. He didn’t laugh then, either.