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'What's your greatest weakness?' 3 smart replies

Don't be rattled if you're asked this all-too-common job-interview question. Plus, calling all twentysomethings, bosses, and parents - we want to hear from you.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I just came from a job interview for a position I really wanted, in another division of the company where I work now, but I think I blew it. After a detailed conversation about what I've been doing (leading a product-development team), my accomplishments in the past year, etc., the hiring manager suddenly said, "Tell me about your greatest weakness." I was at a loss because I wasn't expecting that and, while I know I'm not perfect, I couldn't think of any weaknesses that were bad enough to be worth mentioning, so I just stared at him and said nothing. How should I handle this next time (if there is a next time)? -Kicking Myself in Chicago

Dear K.M.: First, stop kicking yourself. This is a tough question, especially since hiring managers have long since learned to see right through self-congratulatory confessions like, "I tend to work too hard" and "At times I'm almost too conscientious."

Next time you're stumped by an interview question, if you have the presence of mind, try steering the conversation toward another topic - such as why you think your qualifications are perfect for this position.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a psychologist who heads Dattner Consulting (http://www.dattnerconsulting.com) in New York City, frequently advises both hiring managers and executive job seekers on how to get the most out of the interviewing process. He discourages his corporate clients from asking the "greatest weakness" question at all, but alas - as you've discovered - many interviewers ask it nonetheless.

Job interviews are stressful enough without being required to run ourselves down, but it isn't only job hunters who have to deal with this: The same issues arise when people are asked to evaluate their own performance in a job they already have.

Dattner suggests three possible ways to answer:

1. Focus the discussion on how you've improved over time. Instead of hashing over a current weakness (assuming you can think of one), talk about a past shortcoming and how you resolved it. Maybe you used to have trouble meeting deadlines, for instance, until you took a time-management course that helped you get your schedule under control. "The idea is to show that you are interested in getting better and better at what you do," says Dattner.

2. Talk about how the job you're applying for will help you stretch and build your skills. Again, no matter how good you already are, you can always improve - and you may see specific ways in which this particular job will help you do that. If so, the interview is a good time to mention it.

3. Describe a valuable piece of advice someone gave you, and how it has helped your career. "This could be, for example, a boss who once told you not to give people the answers but to let them figure things out on their own," says Dattner. "Or maybe a mentor once pointed out to you that not everyone is motivated by the same things you are, and that insight helped you become a better manager." Whatever the pearl of wisdom you received, a willingness to talk about its effect on you "shows that you want to learn and grow," Dattner notes. "And that's really what hiring managers are trying to find out."

What if you're not job hunting but rather have been asked to rate your own performance as part of a job evaluation, and you can't think of anything less-than-stellar to say about yourself? Dattner has a little mental exercise he sometimes recommends to clients: Imagine that today is November 14, 2007 (or one year from whatever day you're reading this), and you have just been fired. Now answer the question: Why?

What do you think? Post your comments on our Ask Annie blog.

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