A psychologist's guide to answering 'what is your greatest weakness?' in a job interview

Although well-designed job interviews are very useful recruitment tools, the typical job interview is far too improvised and unstructured to predict candidates' future job performance. Unsurprisingly, scientific research shows that the majority of candidates engage in deliberate tactics of manipulation during job interviews, including impression management, deception, ingratiation, and showing off. It is perhaps for this reason – the fact that bragging and boasting are so pervasive during job interviews – that recruiters and hiring managers love to ask candidates about their greatest weakness – and there's no shortage of suggestions on how to answer this question. But here’s what a psychologist suggests is how you should tackle the question:

Act surprised

Regardless of the quality of your response, it will be stronger if it doesn't seem rehearsed. Your ability to pretend that you are thinking on the spot – or, even better, that you have been put on the spot – and have been forced to sincerely report on your biggest weaknesses, is likely to make a better impact on your interviewers than seeming prepared or scripted would.

Avoid common clichés

There's clearly a logic to most of the popular suggestions for answering the "what is your greatest weakness" question. For example, "I'm too much of a perfectionist" and "I'm too self-critical" represent attempts to mask positive and sought-after traits (perfectionism and self-awareness) as defects. The desired effect here – assuming fake modesty works – is to even make your defects seem impressive, for they are not even common as virtues.

Avoid being brutally honest

Whether you lack self-awareness or not, there are few reasons for telling interviewers exactly what you think about your greatest weaknesses – and, in any event, that is not what interviewers are interested in finding out. Rather, they want to evaluate your ability to portray a believable degree of fake modesty, ideally with some degree of self-awareness, while you are still selling yourself for the job.

What you should actually say

You will probably get bonus points for highlighting the things your interviewers already identified as weaknesses. It demonstrates self-awareness – the ability to know how other people see you. Plus they will feel good about having guessed or identified your flaws, and having given you a killer question that made you confess them. In essence, this strategy makes them look good and feel good about themselves, without weakening you beyond what they thought.