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What to say when an interviewer asks, 'What's your biggest weakness?'

CNBC logo CNBC 5 days ago Marguerite Ward
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It's expected, a bit awkward and cliche. At some point in a job interview, a hiring manager will likely ask, "What's your biggest weakness?"

You know it's coming, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take it seriously. In fact, according to bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch, hiring managers use this well-worn question to gain key insights into your character.

"[Interviewers] ask about your greatest weakness," she says, "because they want to hear your answer demonstrate character traits that are essential to high performance in any job."

The best responses, she says, illustrate these four traits:

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1. Self-awareness

A good answer to this question requires some introspection. Be extremely honest with yourself about your shortcomings so that you can provide the interviewer with an authentic response.

"From your resume and your interviews and references, the hiring manager already has a very good idea of what your challenges are," says Welch. "The question is, do you?"

Pinpoint a specific weakness that may have hindered your success in the past, but that you've worked to overcome. Then, be direct and transparent in your answer.

"Surprise them, and go there," she says, "with the caveat that obviously it's best if your weakness is not central to the very success of the business."

2. Authenticity

"Hiring managers want to make sure that you aren't full of it," the bestselling author says.

Whatever you do, don't dodge the question by giving a tired, insincere answer that the hiring manager will have definitely heard before.

"Answers like 'I'm a perfectionist' or 'I'm a workaholic' are the red flags of phoniness," Welch says. "And no one likes to work with a phony."

3. Discretion

Keep your answer professional and succinct, the leadership expert suggests. Talking about a personal weakness unrelated to work or launching into an emotional monologue are two things to make sure you avoid.

"Anyone looking to add you to their team wants to know that you understand the difference between a work weakness and a personal weakness," Welch says, "and can talk about both with the right level of detail and maturity."

This is not the time to talk about how you manage your challenging relationship with your parents. Remember, says Welch, "no boss wants to be your shrink."

4. Initiative

Don't just explain your weakness, show how you've grown by addressing it. Share how you are using a certain organization system, working with a coach or taking a class to remedy the situation, and make sure your answer is truthful.

"No matter what weakness you name, the important thing is what you say about what you've already done to fix it," Welch says, "and how you plan to continue that process in the new position."

Welch suggests pointing out an area where you have some experience but not as much as the hiring manager wants, and describing what you're doing to learn more.

For instance, you might say: "As it relates to this job, I would say I don't have the all the client-facing experience you're seeking. But I've recently starting taking an online sales class to beef up my knowledge in this area, and I know I can balance this deficit at the outset with my analytic skills."

Like it or not, this question will almost definitely come up in your next job interview.

"Pick the weakness you're going to name beforehand," Welch says, "and be ready to talk about it — the right way."

Suzy Welch is the co-founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute and a noted business journalist, TV commentator and public speaker.

More from Suzy Welch:

Video by Mary Stevens.

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