The Most Dreaded Interview Question and How to Tackle it

  | 9 min read
the most dreaded interview question

An interview, in itself, is a nerve-wracking experience that still gives you butterflies no matter how hard you prepare. The questions asked in an interview don’t make the situation better. These questions are formulated to test your suitability, experience and capacity to perform optimally if given the role. This is why giving canned answers to the common interview questions doesn’t work.

We all know these common interview questions. The ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘Where you see yourself in 5 years’ kind and others. BrighterMonday, in its social media accounts, created a poll that sought to find out which question in interviews they dreaded in interviews, and we have a winner: What is your greatest weakness?

Why do Candidates Fear this Question?


most dreaded interview question

The poll conducted by BrighterMonday showed that 41%of the respondents considered this question scary and ridiculous at the same time.

Why would a panel ask about a weakness yet the candidate is here to show them just how well they fit into the role they cut out? Shouldn't they concentrate more on why a candidate is right and not why they are wrong for the role? Click To Tweet

This question is usually the half part of the larger question “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses.” Strengths are easy to talk about. Isn’t it why they called you for the interview? They saw strengths splattered across your CV and said amongst themselves, “Let’s call this one. She looks like she has something we can explore.” Talking about weaknesses though, that’s a tough one. Telling the panel that you are not a morning person and you’re late every day, or that you miss almost every deadline because you are the queen of procrastination doesn’t sound like a wise way to create a good impression. You will not get that job, that’s for sure. That is why you will not give such answers,  even though they define you to a tee.

So Why do Recruiters Still Ask about weaknesses?

the most difficult interview question
It is not what it seems

You might be wondering why recruiters continue to ask this question in interviews knowing too well no candidate is going to give a real weakness. However, there is a very good reason why the ‘what is your greatest weakness’ has become a cliche in interviews. Th reason lies in the how you answer the question and not necessarily in what you say. How you answer this question is very telling. It shows how you deal with curveballs thrown at you with the intention of catching you off-guard. How you are able to show that you are first of all authentic in realising that you are work in progress and the fact that you are self-aware enough to recognize your shortcomings with the intention of working to improve them.

Common Wrong Interpretations of the Weakness Question

To avoid showing your dark, ugly, unemployable side, you will quickly interpret the question in one of the following ways and give an answer;

  1. An interview Should Only Portray the Good. So, Deny Deny Deny:

Wrong move.

Denial is the worst mistake you could ever make in such a situation. Saying you do not have a weakness doesn’t make any sense at all. No one is perfect, and there is always room for improvement no matter how seasoned you think you are. When you say you have no weakness, you make the interviewer think you are hiding something.

2. I am going to sugarcoat a weakness with a strength!

Sneaky, but still a wrong move.

Recruiters have discovered this trick where candidates give strengths disguised as weaknesses to look good. You must have heard these statements;

  • I am such a hard worker I don’t know when to stop.
  • I am a perfectionist. All my ducks have to be in a perfect row
  • I care too much about the task at hand everything else fades into oblivion

These statements don’t work anymore. Recruiters see right through the unauthentic effort to look good.

3. Oh, another chance for me to unpack my baggage

Uncomfortable for everyone, and a very wrong move

You are not in a shrink’s office. Do not mistake an interview as a chance for you to talk about your personal problems. Telling the panel how a certain interviewer a long time ago shouted at you making you so scared and triggered your stammering isn’t going to get you sympathy. It will only make everyone in the room uncomfortable. Even if one of your weaknesses is clearly visible, how you manage without constantly referring to it will be your ultimate strength. So no, tagging on your panel’s empathy will not get you the job.

 Different Ways Recruiters Frame the Weakness Question

the most difficult interview question
Read between the lines

1. Tell me about your greatest weakness

This is the most common way of asking the question.

2. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

This little sandwich comes with a positive that starts with a high where you feel great about highlighting your strengths, till you hit the “now on to my weaknesses,” phrase. You then realise you actually don’t know what to say!

3. What are some of your weaknesses? 

The interviewer is asking for more than just one weakness. They know you are ready with one well-rehearsed weakness and they decide to push for more. This means that you need to be ready just in case they ask for another weakness or do a follow-up question on the one you give.

4. If you were to change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

This phrasing is asking for what you consider your greatest weakness. The trick here lies in the positive framing of the question, where you will find yourself just talking about your weaknesses unaware because at the back of your mind you are waiting to be asked, “What is your greatest weakness.

5. If I called your previous supervisor today, what would they tell me you need to work on?

This is by far the trickiest framing of the question. You are forced to think about two things at the same time; What did my previous supervisor always reprimand me on? and What will my previous supervisor really say? The interviewer plants the idea of them actually calling your previous supervisor and subconsciously ends up coercing you to be more honest.

6. What do you want to change about yourself this year?

This phrasing also points to your greatest weakness and in a positive way talk about the plans you have for self-improvement.

7. Tell me about the development plans you have set for yourself

This framing probes you for your weaknesses in order of great to small, while at the same time emphasizes on your capacity to be proactive and set goals for self-development.

So how then should you answer the weakness question in interviews?

the most dreaded interview question
Be true to yourself

Now that you understand that the weakness question is more than just a ridiculous cliche, how do you answer it appropriately?

Prepare Prepare Prepare

A sure way of flunking this question so bad is lack of preparation. Most interview questions give you the opportunity to talk about positive things that define you. This is the only question that explores your ‘dark side’. So there’s that fact that you are supposed to say something that doesn’t flatter you, then the other fact that you didn’t even think about it or prepare. That equals to double the butterflies. You do not want that now, do you?

Be authentic

Think of something that defines you as much as possible, and find a way of describing it in your own language. Rehashing and repeating cliche answers puts off the interviewers and whats worse? You might be so nervous you forget your rehearsed answer!

Be careful not to give a weakness that would be considered major in that role

There is a reason why you should research and prepare for every interview. Roles are unique. This is why different skillsets are required for different roles. Different strengths are critical in different roles, so are acceptable weaknesses. You cannot be interviewing for an accounting position then say your greatest weakness is your inability to comprehend numbers! Or you are seated in a customer service interview and you say how you find it hard to interact with people, how they tire you. You definitely won’t get that job. Your weakness should not be critical for the role. It seems like you are being set up to lie, but interviews are meant to showcase WHY YOU ARE RIGHT for that job.

Possible Follow Up Questions to Watch Out For

most feared interview question
Be ready for follow up questions instead of just hoping they don’t ask
  • But how has this weakness affected you negatively? 

This question will be asked if your interviewer thinks you haven’t given a real weakness. Make sure you don’t use cliche answers or this question will follow up.

  • Ok, Now give us a real weakness

The interviewer point blank thinks you are lying. They might sigh or roll their eyes, “here we go again same old answers.” This will usually happen if you give cliche weaknesses like, “I am a perfectionist.”

  • So what have you done to conquer this weakness?

This will be asked if you have given a half answer; meaning you have given a weakness without following up with an explanation of what you are currently doing to overcome the weakness.

  • Tell me about a time this weakness affected you

The interviewer wants to verify that the weakness you spoke about really affected you in your work and that you are telling the truth.

  • If we hire you, how can we be sure this weakness will not be a detriment? 

This question is asked when your weakness is of concern in relation to carrying out your tasks. The important thing here is to convince the interviewer that your weakness is a thing of the past or that you have made great strides in alleviating its effects.

So there you have it,

The weakness question is not that hard after all, is it? When you understand why it is asked and how you can tackle it, you can go into any interview confident to take the job and the day.



Doreen Mueke
Doreen is the Senior Content Marketer at Ringier One Africa Media.