The Most Important Interview Question

Written by on August 25, 2014 in Blog, Interviews with 4 Comments

Is The Weakness Question The Most Important Interview Question?

HR reps and headhunters don’t always agree, but one thing they are usually in sync on is the most important interview question—what is your greatest weakness.

You might be reading this and think…”They didn’t ask me that in my last interview.” But they probably did, although it could have been framed differently.

  • Where do you need to improve the most?
  • If we do reference checks with your previous managers, what would they say are the areas you need to improve on?
  • If we asked your peers the same question, what would they say?
  • If you could snap your finger and pick one set of skills to improve, what would that be?

It doesn’t matter how the interviewer asks the question, the response has to be the same. The interviewer wants to know what your weakness is, or where you need to improve the most, or where you’re not as strong in technical skills or management experience, or something.

Candidates seem to get more flustered with this question than any other. And for no good reason.

I’m Going To Tell You A Secret

In most cases, the interviewer doesn’t even want to know the answer; they simply want to see how you answer it.

I have listened to hundreds of responses from candidates, and I have discussed this with many clients. I’m convinced there is only one correct answer…

Being Honest

Honesty is an abused virtue these days. It seems as if you only hear of someone being honest after they’ve been caught doing something.

  • A politician with his pants down or his hands in the till.
  • A comment that slipped out and offended ethnic groups or religions.
  • Other general acts of disobedience, like drinking and driving.

The one common ground is that the honesty part only surfaces after the guilty party is exposed. People are forgiving souls though, and if an apology is well written and presented sincerely, all ends well.

But All is Not Forgiven in an Interview

With interviews, you have to get it right the first time. If you mess up an important question like, “What is your greatest weakness,” you don’t get a second shot. It’s important to remember that the company doesn’t expect you to be Superman. You are allowed to have faults.

The crazy thing is that this is not a difficult question. By this point in your life you should know what your weaknesses are. I’m sure that your parents, spouse, coworkers, and others have let you know on more than a few occasions exactly where you need to improve. So if you don’t know your weakness by now, please look up the definition for “self-awareness.”

In most cases, your weakness doesn’t matter. Whatever you tell them will not be a shocker, and they’ve likely heard it before. If you’re applying for a sales job and you’re terrified of meeting new people—you might have a problem. But for the normal, run-of-the-mill problems, just blurt it out. A weakness doesn’t make you look bad—even Superman can be hurt by kryptonite.

Focus on this—you’re being interviewed because the company saw something on your resume, or heard something about you that made them feel you can help. They brought you in because of a strength you have in sales, or customer support, or engineering, or quality…something.

Show them how you can help them with their problems. Convince them that you’re a person they can count on. If you do that, it won’t matter what your weakness is. So…how do you answer the weakness question? Here’s how you don’t do it.

Don’t Try Covering Up

Nothing is worse than trying to cover up your weakness and pass it off as a strength.
What do I mean?
I mean by saying things like:

  • I’m a perfectionist
  • I’m a workaholic
  • I’m too hands on.

I’ve not only seen candidates do this—and fail—but I’ve also seen so called “experts” recommend this as a way to respond. Trust me. This doesn’t work. It will backfire and probably cost you the job.

So how do you answer the question?

I can’t tell you that, but I can show you an example of a good response.

This Person Was Interviewing For a Position as a Major Account Representative

“I have a tendency to be overconfident, which leads to me “winging it” instead of preparing for sales calls. When I first started out, it all came easily, but as the products got more complex and the accounts grew bigger, it caused a few problems. My boss noticed the problem and had a long talk with me. It worked.

“If you look on my calendar, you’ll see reminders a few days before every sales call. The notes are there to remind me to prepare. I research the products, the company, the people I’ll be meeting with, and the competition. When I go to a sales call now, I’m prepared and confident. And the results show this. I started using this method three years ago, and since then I’ve been consistently ranked in the top five reps in the country, averaging 2x quota. “The problem is still there. It’s a part of me. But now I know how to deal with it.”

This is a great response because it’s one that hiring managers can relate to. It’s also great because it shows that the candidate listens to others and works on improvement. And, perhaps most importantly, it shows the candidate isn’t afraid to admit his/her weakness, and that they know how to be honest.

And by the way, that person got the job offer.

How To Prepare

Prior to the interview, you should practice your response so that you’re comfortable discussing it, but don’t make it sound rehearsed. And be prepared for the interviewer to probe deeper. Many interviewers, especially good ones, like to dig to see if there is fluctuation in your answer or if you try to back off when pressed. Be consistent, and make certain that your response is the same for all people who ask the question. They do compare notes.

Bottom Line

Be honest. Even if you think your response will hurt your chance for an offer, be honest. Here’s a quick summary:

  • State your weakness.
  • Let the interviewer know you’re aware of your weakness.
  • Show them that you know how to deal with it.
  • Show them that what you’re doing worked.

If you answer this question honestly, you’ll have a better than average shot at receiving an offer.

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About the Author

About the Author:

When I’m not headhunting, or writing, I help my wife take care of our animal sanctuary. At last count we had 45 animals—11 dogs, 1 horse, 6 cats, and 26 pigs. Oh, and one crazy—and very large—wild boar named Dennis who takes walks with me every day and happens to also be my best buddy.
For information on my mystery/suspense books, go to giacomog.com

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4 Reader Comments

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  1. avatar Beth Tarbell says:

    Awesome article and spot on! I especially loved the metaphor, “even Superman can be hurt by Kryptonite.”

  2. avatar Eve says:

    What if perfectionism really is your weakness? Hear me out. I don’t seem my perfectionism as a strength, it is a very real weakness. It slows me down, and it holds me back from taking professional risks or trying new things. My desire to have everything perfect leads me to agonize over something longer than I should, to put too much mental energy into something that really just needs to be taken care of quickly and left behind. My perfectionism stops me from diving into new opportunities, until I know how to do something perfectly I don’t want to try it at all. I have overcome this by learning to accept that there is a learning curve and that while striving for excellence is good, striving for perfection can really cause problems and should not necessarily be a point of pride. I’m practicing taking risks and asking for feedback as I go, so I can see myself make progress and build my confidence in the fact that no one expects perfection right out of the gate. I have learned that people will work with you to help you improve and grow without writing you off as a failure because you can’t do everything perfectly on the first try. In short, I am combating the negative voice that tells me everything I do must be perfect and learning to step out of my comfort zone and accept that it takes time to build skills and it is alright to be a novice at first. Do you think giving that very honest and self-reflective answer (and yes, if you ask my spouse and family they will tell you my perfectionism is my greatest weakness) would still be a mistake?

    • avatar giammatteo
      Twitter:
      says:

      Honesty always triumphs. In fact, you have a good opportunity to make an impression here. I would strongly recommend that when asked this question you start off the response by saying that you understand a person isn’t supposed to say perfectionism is their weakness, however, in this case it really is, and then proceed to describe a in a succinct manner as you did above. Practice it, and if it comes across as sincere as you did in your writing, it should be an excellent response for the interviewer. It would be for me.

      And thanks for this. I should have elaborated on my recommendation about perfectionism. Too many people simply say, “I’m a perfectionist” and leave it at that. An answer like yours is enlightening and refreshing.

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