How to answer the interview question, "What are your weaknesses"

Out of all the interview questions I’m asked to help with, “What are your weaknesses?” is one that often worries people the most. I completely understand why it makes people nervous. It’s a tricky question because interviews are your opportunity to impress the interviewer and convince them that you’re the perfect person for the job. The last thing that feels sensible to do is to spell out your bad points. Another problem with this question is that we sometimes don’t know what our weaknesses are; we all have blind spots. This article will teach you how to work out what your weaknesses are and answer the interview question, “What are your weaknesses?” with confidence. There is also a free PDF document to use when planning out your answers.

The key to answering all interview questions is to keep in mind what the interviewer is actually looking for. When they ask you what your weaknesses are, the information they really want to know is:

  1. How self-aware are you?
  2. When you have an area that needs developing, do you ignore it, or find ways to deal with it and improve the situation?
  3. Could one of your weaknesses mean you aren’t the right person for the job?

The answers that people are often tempted to give are ones that they don’t think are ‘real’ weaknesses. Instead, they think they show them as hard-working and committed. They are usually along these lines:

“I can be too much of a perfectionist.”

“I’m so hardworking and driven, I prioritise work over everything else.”

The problem with these answers is that they seem insincere (because they are used so often) and they don’t tick off points one and two above. Also, although these answers might not have raised any red flags a few years ago, the increased understanding of mental health means that they might do now. Who of us hasn’t had a colleague, family member or friend have to take time off from work because their perfectionism or commitment has led to anxiety, depression or burnout?

The best possible answers are the ones that show you are self-aware and that you have put things in place to tackle your weaknesses. If you’re reading this thinking ‘but I actually have no idea what my weaknesses are’ there are two quick ways of figuring this out.

Identifying your weaknesses

1. Looking at your strengths: If you’re not aware of your weaknesses, there’s also a good chance that you don’t know what your strengths are. Your strengths are your highly developed skills that energise you when you use them. If this is the case, you are certainly not alone; for most of us, our strengths come so easily to us that we dismiss them as strengths and assume that they are easy for everyone (when they’re not). A great way of discovering your strengths (as well as asking for feedback – see point 2 below) is to take a strengths test. My favourite one is Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (you only need to pay for the first 5 strengths, you can ignore the upsell they will try to do to get you to unlock the rest of your strengths). If you’d like to know more about strengths and the CliftonStrengths assessment, I’ve written about them in detail here and take a deep dive into them in the video below. If you’d prefer a free strengths test, then the High 5 Test is a good alternative.

Often our weaknesses are the flip side of our strengths. If we find ourselves using a strength too much, it can become an overdone strength and start manifesting itself as a weakness. Below are some examples:

  • Let’s say one of your strengths is that you are driven, which helps you to stay laser-focused on achieving goals. If you overuse this strength, there is a risk that you can push the people who work for you (or yourself) too hard or don’t consider alternative solutions because you are so focused on the path you have chosen.
  • Or, perhaps you’re very willing to help your colleagues whenever they are struggling. The flip side of this is that you might find yourself overworked and missing your own deadlines because you’re can’t bring yourself to say ‘no’ to other people.

2. Asking for feedback: One of the best ways of identifying your weaknesses is to ask for feedback… Now, many people don’t like asking for feedback because they take criticism to heart and find it difficult to hear, especially if they are hardworking, try their best and put their heart and soul into their work. If this is you, don’t worry, I completely understand – I feel the same way; getting comfortable with asking for feedback is something I’ve had to actively work on. I’ve settled on asking two simple questions to gather feedback. These are:

“What am I doing that is working well?”

“What could I be doing that would make my work/working with me even better?”

If you’re less nervous about asking for feedback than I have been in the past, asking for 360 degree feedback can be an excellent way of getting good insights about both what your strengths are and what the areas you can improve on are. If you haven’t come across 360 degree feedback before, it gets its name from the fact that instead of just asking one or two people for feedback, you take a 360 degree approach, considering who all the people it would be valuable to hear from are e.g. customers, colleagues, people who work for you, your senior manager etc. This, coupled with the fact the feedback is anonymised, means you stand a good chance of getting honest and valuable feedback that is both positive and constructive. If you work for a company that doesn’t have a 360 degree feedback tool, SurveyMonkey has a free one that you can customise to feel right for you.

Talking about your weaknesses in a positive way

Now that you’ve worked out what your weaknesses are, the next step is to figure out how to talk about them in a positive way during your interview, so that you can impress the interviewers when you answer the question, ‘what are your weaknesses’. The best way of doing this is to clearly show how you have taken action to address your weaknesses and ensure they won’t trip you up in the future.

I’ve created this free PDF planning sheet to help you plan your answer out. To help you remember your answer when you’re in the interview, the planning sheet shows you how to break the answer down into four sections and gives each section it’s own visual cue – a coloured icon. This is because it can be easier to remember information under pressure when you’ve chunked it down into sections and can visualise the colours and pictures that are on the page next to each section.

Below is a step-by-step example of how to use the planning sheet to answer the question, “What are your weaknesses?” The example imagines that your weakness is time management. The steps in the planning sheet are:

  1. State what the weakness is.
  2. Explain the steps you’ve taken to address it.
  3. Spell out how you know they’ve worked.
  4. Explain why the weakness won’t negatively impact this role.
PDF planning sheet for answering the interview question, "What are your weaknesses?"

Once you have used the planning sheet to plan out your answer to the interview question, “What are your weaknesses?” it’s a good idea to practice saying your answer out loud several times. Videoing yourself or recording your voice using your phone (to watch/listen to before your interview) are also handy ways of helping you to remember what you’d like to say on the day of the interview.

I hope this article has helped you to feel more confident and prepared for your next interview. If you’d like some support from me in person (or by video call) take a look at my interview coaching package, or get in touch to discuss the other ways I can help.