Interview tips – What’s your biggest weakness?

Some years back, when I was working as a Retail Category Manager, I was interviewing for a retail analysis role. It was a promotion and the salary was attractive, but it was a job I wanted for all the wrong reasons. My motivations were personal, rather than professional, and my heart really wasn’t fully in it.

I was asked a version of the classic interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?”, although it was phrased as “What elements of your current role are you least happy doing?” I had prepared for this question, but 45 minutes into a second interview I was feeling a bit over-confident. I felt that there was a clear rapport between me and the interviewer and that I could answer with blasé frankness.

Instead of my pre-prepared answer, I went with: “I don’t suppose I particularly enjoy using Excel and working in detail with data. I mean, I know it’s an important part of the job [it is indeed – for those of you who don’t know, a retail category manager will spend around 50% of their time analysing data on Excel] but it doesn’t really excite me. I just prefer the Eureka moment of finding a key consumer insight”.

I left the interview feeling enormously positive – it was clearly in the bag. But two days later my recruiter informed me that I had been unsuccessful. I was naturally indignant – How could they? How dare they? The answer was straight to the point, and I would swear that the recruiter sounded just a trifle peeved as she said: “Apparently you said you didn’t enjoy working with data, and data is a really important part of the role – they couldn’t take someone on who said they didn’t like data” before adding a little incredulously: “Did you really say that?”

Despite it being the most obvious question in the book, I have to be perfectly honest and say that in all my years both as a marketing employee and recruiter, I have never heard a particularly compelling answer to the ‘biggest weakness’ question. In his rather simplified but still interesting book, Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions, author Martin Yate suggests that the only acceptable answer is to suggest something that you know can easily be remedied and is not integral to the role. But shouldn’t you be honest in an interview?

While it’s important to be truthful, both for moral and ethical reasons and to ensure you aren’t hired for a role you’re really not suited to, there is such a thing as being too honest. Ideally, you want to show your own personality, but in a positive way. Below is a two-step process that will help you answer in a credible but upbeat way.

Step 1 – pick the right weakness

When you’re preparing for your interview, go through the list of essential and desirable requirements for the role and make sure you don’t pick one of those. Choose something you know they’re not that bothered about (a piece of software perhaps) which wouldn’t be a major handicap for the job.

Step 2 – give it a positive spin

Step 2 is a crucial part of answering the “greatest weakness” question. Whichever weakness you’ve chosen, go on to discuss how you are already making proactive efforts to improve on this area and how you’ll go on to master it. This helps to cancel out any negativity your answer has created and shows that you are self-aware and striving to improve.

The typical mistakes candidates make

Whatever you do, don’t answer that you are too much of a perfectionist. Trying to turn a negative into a straightforward positive is an utter cliché and your interviewer will see straight through it. Similarly, don’t say you don’t have, or can’t think of, any weaknesses. Both of these answers make it seem like you have something to hide.

If you’re looking to move roles and would like some more advice on preparing for interviews, get in touch with the Tarsh Partnership on 020 7849 6875 or and find out how we can help your career take off.


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