The Best Way to Answer the World’s Worst Job-Interview Question

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Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

There are many awful job-interview questions, but this one is especially, notoriously bad: What is your biggest weakness? It’s a cliché at this point, but many employers do still ask some version of it. “Tell me about a time you failed.” “What are some areas in which you feel you need to grow?” Do not fall for these; they are the very same question in clever disguise.

The typical answer, as author and Wharton professor Adam Grant pointed out earlier this week in a post on Medium, is to twist your words around so that you use the question to reveal a secret strength. That’s an understandable way to go, but study after study in workplace psychology has shown that the smarter strategy is to simply answer honestly and accurately. As Grant writes:

In one study, interviewers gave the highest ratings to business school applicants who were more concerned with being seen accurately than positively. In another study, Harvard researchers asked undergraduates to answer a job interview question about their weaknesses. Only 23 percent gave actual negative qualities: I procrastinate. I overreact to situations. The other 77 percent hid their weaknesses inside a humblebrag: I’m too nice. I’m too demanding when it comes to fairness. When collaborators reviewed the answers, they were 30 percent more interested in hiring the candidates who acknowledged a legitimate weakness.

If done correctly, Grant argues, this can project a sense of security to your prospective employers. Everyone has stuff about their work that they’re not particularly great at yet — it takes guts, not to mention a certain self-awareness, to admit it. And, anyway, the best employers, as Ask a Manager’s Alison Green has noted, will use this information to help you improve. My greatest weakness, in case you were curious, is coming up with clever kickers for silly blog posts.