How to Answer ‘What Is Your Greatest Fear?’

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Illustration of a woman with ghosts behind her

Preparing for an upcoming job interview means taking the time to consider how your goals and qualifications suit the role and the employer.

Employers ask a range of questions to ascertain what you know about them and whether you’re the right fit for their company. By preparing answers to different interview questions, you’ll be more confident during the interview.

One interview question that hiring managers commonly ask is: ‘What is your greatest fear?’.

There are several reasons why this question gets asked, and how you answer it could play a significant role in landing the job.

Our guide will help you understand the top reasons why hiring managers ask this question and provide you with advice on how to craft the perfect response.

Why hiring managers ask this question

This question is sometimes described as a ‘stress test’ question. It is designed to establish how a candidate acts under pressure, handles workplace conflict and copes with stress. It’s a popular and common interview question used by recruiters to determine how you would handle certain facets of the role if you were hired and how well you manage your anxieties.

This facilitates the hiring process and helps recruiters hire the right person based on their ability to do the job and deliver results. It also gives them a better idea of how a candidate would fit in with the team.

As Max Harland, CEO of Dentaly, states that ‘Employers pose this question to get a better idea of your personality and see if your fear is not a misfit to what they’re looking for.’

Aside from that, they ask this question to determine if any factors could affect your performance within the role. They also want to ensure that your personal needs align with the needs of the position. After all, an employee whose personal values align with the company’s core values is typically happier, more productive and more inspired to do their job.

How to craft a response

1. Be honest

You should answer every question that comes your way during the interview with honesty. Answering this question with ‘I don’t have any fears’ is both unrealistic and simplistic.

So, if you want to stay in your interviewer’s memory long after you’ve walked out the door, craft an honest answer that reveals more about you.

Being honest reflects positively on you and shows that you are an ethical individual with integrity. Also, bear in mind that if recruiters ask you this question, they will be asking others. As such, they will probably be able to sense it if your response is dishonest.

There’s no need to go into a lengthy explanation. Sandra Henderson, hiring manager and coach at Life Hacks, advises to ‘give an honest, concise explanation of why you have that fear. Don’t go overboard as it will only make the hiring manager think that you are trying too hard to justify a fear that you can’t handle.’

2. Keep it professional

This isn’t about what insects you’re afraid of or whether you have a fear of heights. As Dana Case, Director of Operations at MyCorporation, states: ‘The answer should tie in with common situations that candidates may encounter in the workplace and within their role and provide actionable steps for how they can combat this fear.’

She continues: ‘Consider responding by using an example of a time when you were able to overcome a fear you had in the workplace. Perhaps you were struggling to meet a goal and had to get creative to get the work done, such as bringing on members of your team to help and pull a few all-nighters to get the deliverables together.’

Giving a solid example in this way demonstrates that even though there are certain areas of your job that scare you, by implementing actionable steps, you go above and beyond to overcome those fears.

Hiring managers want to understand how your fears relate to your career. When answering, they want a response that offers insight into your true personality.

3. Give a specific example

The worst response to this question is to give a generic fear, such as sharks or confined spaces. Your answer needs to relate to how you will perform in the role, not what affects you in the outside world.

Therefore, when crafting your answer, give a specific example, then explain why you have this fear and what steps you are taking to overcome it.

For instance, perhaps you are someone who struggles to maintain a healthy work-life balance. In this case, you could say that you are often over-enthusiastic about projects and take on too much of the workload, which isn’t good for your mental or physical health, or your personal life.

4. Demonstrate proactivity

While addressing your fears isn’t a bad thing, your interviewer wants to know what actions you have taken to overcome them.

Are you someone who laughs in the face of fear or succumbs to it? What methods have you adopted to face up to them?

Recruiters want to see that you take a proactive approach when dealing with your fears and that you have ways to manage or overcome them. This also demonstrates confidence and self-awareness.

Being willing to delve into details also shows that you are committed to landing the role.

5. Maintain a positive attitude

In an interview setting, it’s essential to have a positive attitude throughout. You want to demonstrate a can-do mindset. While you may have to address your fears, you shouldn’t take a negative approach when talking about them.

Max Harland advises: ‘Always remember that you don’t have to speak anything negative about yourself. Present your answer in a way that puts you in a positive light. That’s the basic trick to it.’

So, as you explain a certain fear, you may have, try to focus on the positive aspects of how overcoming this fear has helped you sharpen your skills or advance professionally.

For example, you could say that you fear making a regulatory compliance mistake when processing payroll. However, this encouraged you to register with various associations whose publications keep you in the know with useful industry developments, which has enhanced your approach to your work.

Adding a positive twist when talking about certain fears will demonstrate how you seek solutions and convert your fears into positive results.

6. Speak with confidence

Many people seem to think that having fears is frowned upon, but fear exists in us for a reason and is something that we all experience.

When candidates hear this question, they often freeze up or think they need to be hard on themselves when responding. This question aims to show that you acknowledge your weaknesses and strive to overcome them.

Therefore, ensure to speak with confidence, not just when answering this question but also during the entire interview. This shows you are comfortable in your own skin and are willing to take action to overcome your fears.

7. Be kind to yourself

You need to remember that this isn’t a trick question, and interviewers aren’t trying to catch you out. So, it’s crucial not to beat yourself up about your response.

Often, we can be too hard on ourselves. Maybe you think you’re not doing as good a job as you should be when in fact, you’re achieving great success and doing well in your role.

Speak about yourself with compassion, as you would for a close friend, and put that internal narrator to rest and have trust in your capabilities.

While you want to avoid coming off as arrogant, you also need to remember that your interviewer wants to know what you have to offer. Since you’re the only one capable of telling them, then be sure to do so with kindness and compassion.

Example answers

Being well-prepared for an interview is essential and can make all the difference when it comes to landing the job.

As with other interview questions, your answers should be rehearsed beforehand. However, bear in mind that you shouldn’t sound like you’ve memorised your response!

Use these example answers as inspiration when crafting your own response to the question ‘What is your greatest fear?’.

Demonstrating awareness

‘One of my greatest fears in the workplace is confrontation. Outside of work, I am very non-confrontational, but I understand the importance of speaking up when it is necessary. Now, even though I get nervous about confrontation, I understand its importance and push myself to speak up more often and express my opinion more.’

Emphasising actionable steps you’ve taken and your progress

‘Public speaking has always been a challenge for me. I get very nervous and hesitant about giving presentations and fear that people will judge me, but I have started attending public speaking seminars to learn how to manage this fear. They have given me a real confidence boost. I still get nervous before pitches or presentations, but I have learnt strategies to remain calm and get the job done well.’

Highlighting your experience

‘I often fear being wrong. When I received a promotion in my current role, I was hesitant to make decisions. My fear was that if I made a mistake, it would possibly damage the business. As my experience in the role grew, I was able to learn to trust my instincts, which gave me more confidence in my role.’

Showcasing your learning process

‘My biggest fear in the workplace is letting people down. I have always felt very empathetic towards others and care greatly about their feelings. Letting people down impacts me greatly, and I worry about disappointing others. However, I am learning to understand the importance of setting boundaries and not taking things personally. I understand that assertiveness is a key communication skill that enables me to speak up in a respectful and appropriate way.’

This common interview question shouldn’t be feared! Use it as an opportunity to turn a perceived negative into a positive, showing that you acknowledge your fears but also face up to them in an effective and meaningful way. This will leave your interviewers with a good first impression of you and will hopefully lead to a second interview – or a job offer!

Have you ever been asked this question in an interview? How did you respond? Let us know in the comments below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 13 January 2017.