What's your greatest weakness? Here's how to respond

An applicant prepares for an interview at the University of Mumbai's Garware Institute of Career Education and Development in India. Photo by: Prashant Panjiar / AIF

While a job interview is an opportunity for you to further impress an employer and demonstrate what you are good at doing, the interviewer will also be looking to find out what you are not so good at doing. Interview questions addressing your greatest weakness or mistakes can be particularly daunting and difficult to answer and interviewers end up hearing a lot of “humble bragging” and disingenuous self-evaluations as a result.

Devex spoke to global development recruiters to find out which type of questions they might ask in an interview, what they look for in an answer, and what personal qualities they expect a candidate to demonstrate. As with all interview questions, preparation is key.

Here are a few additional tips from global development recruiters on how you should talk about your greatest weakness in an interview.

Prepare a few examples

Interviewers will often ask a candidate to describe a situation where they faced a challenge or they made a mistake. Here they are looking for the candidate to give them concrete examples. Before the interview, identify and write down some key situations that you will be able to easily recall, suggests Hillary Jenkins, leadership recruiter at World Vision International. You could tell the interviewer about a time you went above and beyond your prescribed duties, experienced conflict with a coworker or manager, or were able to overcome an obstacle, she explains.

If you are struggling to think of examples, think back to your previous performance reviews, says Jenkins, and ask “what have been areas that your manager has identified as areas of improvement?”

Go into detail

When talking about a mistake or failure, a candidate should be able to walk the interviewer through the scenario — what caused the mistake, how it was caught, how the situation was resolved, and what you did to ensure the same mistake would not be repeated, says Jennifer Coburn, global staffing specialist with Oxfam America. “We all make mistakes — it’s how we respond to them that matters,” she adds.

When it comes to describing a scenario, the steps you took, and the results you achieved, “the more details the better,” says Jenkins, as this adds to your credibility. Be sure to mention any concrete numbers or results too, as “recruiters love that.”

Be honest

Coburn says she hears a lot of “humble bragging” when she asks candidates about their greatest weakness. Answers like “I can be too passionate about work” or “I tend to be too detail-oriented” aren’t fooling anyone and it just seems like the candidate is trying to sound perfect, she explains. “I am looking for self-awareness, humility, and the capacity for growth,” says Coburn. Candidates should be honest about their weakness and let the interviewer know how they are working to improve.

“We are not trying to trick you,” says Jenkins. When recruiters ask candidates about their weaknesses, we don’t expect them to be perfect at everything “so be honest and share areas that might not come as naturally to you,” she adds.

Own up to your mistakes

Coburns says she pays particular attention to whether or not the candidate owns their role in making the mistake as opposed to telling her about a group mistake or how they caught a colleague’s error. “They’re trying so hard to impress us that they actually end up sounding disingenuous, and I believe it makes the hiring managers a bit nervous,” she says. It leaves recruiters thinking “what about when they make a mistake with us? Will they take responsibility for it or will they try to place blame elsewhere? It’s a red flag for us.”

Every mistake or challenge is an opportunity to grow, so candidates should demonstrate maturity, admit why something was challenging, and explain what they learned from the experience, says Coburn.

Practice

Enlist the help of some friends and have them play the role of the interviewer. Get them to ask questions that may be uncomfortable, says Coburn. They will probably come up with questions that hadn’t occurred to you before, but you can start to think about the best examples and how you want to respond.

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.