What is your greatest weakness?”
This terrible (but often used) interview question was the subject of a recent post by Priscilla Claman in the Harvard Business Review.

This question always makes people uneasy, she says. It originates from the old-fashioned aversive interview approach of the 1950s and 1960s, designed to make the candidate uncomfortable to see how well he or she handles pressure.

The question still feels like a put down. When you purposefully make a candidate feel embarrassed, he or she won’t forget it, and will most likely never recommend your organization to a friend.

Claman says she doesn’t believe in the abstract idea of individual “weaknesses,” only weaknesses in the context of particular corporate cultures. For example, someone who might seem weak or indecisive in an execution-oriented culture might fit right into a highly collaborative culture. What looks like weakness in one culture may be strength in another. It’s much more useful for an interviewer to know what strengths are needed to do the job and to determine if the candidate has those strengths.

Loathed as it is, candidates have to be prepared for this question — because sooner or later someone will ask. Rather than hemming and hawing for an answer on the spot, follow these recommendations:

  1. Prepare an answer that is true, trivial, brief, and not a fault. Some examples:
    • My biggest weakness is that my professional network is in San Francisco, but I am looking for a job in Boston to be with my fiancé.
    • My biggest weakness is that my undergraduate degree is from a college that has a good reputation in the East, but is not well-known in the Midwest.
  2. Run your answer by a couple of critical friends or colleagues to make sure it sounds reasonable.
  3. When asked the question, end your answer by asking the interviewer a question, so that the attention is deflected away from your answer.