This is one of the most dreaded interview questions, but if you understand the reason interviewers ask it and what they’re looking to uncover, you’ll see that you can certainly prepare for it.
The question about your weaknesses comes fairly soon after the interview begins and typically after such a question as, What are your accomplishments? or What are your strengths? Those two questions—if delivered correctly—let you sell yourself. They’re positive questions. Then—to contrast them—comes the awkward question about weaknesses. This question is not easy for the interviewer to ask, and it’s even more difficult for most people to answer.
So, what is the interviewer after? He wants to test several things: at face value, he hopes you won’t be so very honest as to provide a blatantly and hugely negative weakness that cancels your candidacy. An example would be an accountant who admits not liking working with numbers. The interviewer’s also going to weigh whether your answer could have a potential consequence in the future. You’ll also be watched carefully to determine whether the words you say and the communication your body language conveys are aligned or are contradictory.
Above all, the interviewer wants to see whether you present as an honest individual with a capability for healthy reasoning. This is probably the most important aspect of all. The reason is that a dishonest person or a person who does not exercise good judgment puts the hiring manager in danger. And that could have significant consequences not only for the candidate but also for the hiring manager, the hiring manager’s boss, and probably several others in the chain of command—all the way to the CEO, depending on the severity of the issue.
Two concrete examples come to mind. The first incident happened in 2008, when a French trader at major bank Société Général caused a loss of some $7 billion through an allegedly unauthorized trade. The trader was tried in court, but beyond that, several of his supervisors got dragged into the mess as well. The other example—is the alleged sexual misconduct of a coach at Penn State University. The issue caused the firing of a very well-respected and long-tenured university president; the school’s head coach, Joe Paterno, who had been revered for decades and died in the meantime; and several other senior executives at the school.
So, the question remains: What is a good answer? Simply put, any answer that conveys honesty and healthy reasoning is a good answer. But to make your response even better, I suggest that between hearing the question and giving your answer, you pause for three to five seconds, take your eye away from the interviewer in order to pretend that you’re thinking of a reply, and then look the interviewer in the eyes because that kind of body language projects honesty. Then you should recount an incident that happened sometime in the past and that you’ve had a chance to correct since. Then add that moreover, you’re now so good at whatever the surmounted weakness was, that others in your organization seek out your advice on this subject. Turn lemon into lemonade.