“What is your biggest weakness?” is a question that is starting to disappear from interviews, especially for graduate programmes, because it has become very cliché. However, there are still plenty of old school hiring managers out there who (some would argue out of laziness…) like to ask this question, in part because they know everyone absolutely hates answering this one. Even Barack Obama faced it during his presidential campaign from several journalists!
The main stage I’ve heard it used at for graduates is in final stage partner/director interviews – which unfortunately makes it a question you definitely need to be prepared for because getting a ‘no’ at this stage of the process - even if you’ve done really well in a challenging assessment centre - is usually career-limiting.
In general respondents still use the approach of ‘I know you are asking for a weakness, but I am going to tell you something that you will actually see as a positive.’ Something like ‘I like to get into the detail of something because I like to make sure everything is done right’, or ‘I need to learn to say no – sometimes I get involved in too many things and get pulled in too many different directions.’ Or my favourite (!) ‘I’m a perfectionist’. Oh please – so boring, and doesn’t lead the conversation anywhere…
To be honest, as a recruiter, that trick is very old now. It is really dull when someone rolls out an answer such as these and in general it doesn’t inspire me to push them forward to the next stage. I prefer to hear honesty about a development point and some evidence of how you’ve already started working on it:
“At the end of my internship, I was given a lot of positive feedback but I also asked for development points as I was keen to make sure I learned from the experience. My manager told me that sometimes in meetings I needed to be more confident, because most of the time the points I raised with him after the meeting were spot on, and he wished I had said them in the meeting. I knew this was something that I needed to work on, and I was trying to, but to have a manager I respected raise it with me really reinforced the point.
I reflected on the occasions where this had happened – where I had regretted not making my point in a meeting – and I realized that had I spoken up at the time, I would have been seen in a positive light by the directors at those meetings as I would have been making pertinent points and would probably have enhanced my prospects of advancement. I also realized that the worst thing that could happened would have been I made a point that wasn’t necessarily relevant and the meeting would probably have just moved on and no one would really have thought the worse of me except that I was trying to participate, which in general people appreciate rather than just sitting there quietly.
On my return to university, I was put in a project team with some more senior members of the faculty around whom I did feel quite intimidated. I set myself a challenge of making sure that I spoke up in the first team meeting at least once. I was very nervous, but I did it. After having made one point, which was picked up on and further discussed, I found that I made two and three more points and got more involved in the discussion as my confidence grew.
I still do get nervous in meetings, but I am working hard at it and feel that I am getting much better as I am exposed to more opportunities to participate. If I got this role, I would continue to work on this development point.”
This is broadly an answer that I had a couple of years ago and I thought it was a good, honest answer and demonstrated something who wasn’t playing games with the weaknesses question. I also liked that she was well-prepared as it was very articulately discussed.
I’m not saying that you don’t walk a fine line with some answers like this – if you take this approach, you have to have a finely-tuned answer about how you have worked to improve that development point / ‘weakness’ – but there is something very refreshing about someone who has been given some tough feedback and instead of ignoring it, or thinking the person giving the feedback is just wrong, has taken it onboard, analysed where they are going wrong, and then gone about correcting it in a methodical and conscious way.
As a line manager as well as a recruiter, the idea of training and developing someone who is open to feedback and really works on improving themselves as a result is quite exciting because it is possible to have proper, frank development conversations with someone like that and really bring them on quickly. Their prospects for advancement are much better than for others in my mind.
(As a slight aside, I would avoid actually using the word ‘weakness’ in your answer, even if they have said ‘weakness’ in the question. It is a word with such negative connotations. I prefer ‘development point’ or ‘areas for improvement’ – I would use that language instead of ‘weakness’ if I were you. They are also words that indicate more self-awareness and confidence.)
What’s your “weakness”? If you know, then you’re already half way to an answer because being conscious of it and knowing you need to do something about it is already more than many people.