I've interviewed a lot of people in my career. I've also been on the other side of the table as an interviewee. Whereas some interviewing strategies and approaches come and go, there is one question that seems to have stood the test of time, for better or for worse: "What's your biggest weakness?"
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Early in my career, I wasn't a huge fan of the question. I was scared to answer it for fear that I might expose some huge problems that would take me out of consideration for the job. As an interviewer, though, I've found that I like it more and more because it gives me a window into a candidate's self-awareness, humility, and transparency.
Unfortunately, most of us are still answering this question the wrong way – and worse, we think we're outsmarting the question with our bad answers.
If you are anything like me, you received some coaching early on about how to deal with this difficult question. That coaching probably told you to take a strength of yours and "cleverly" disguise it as a weakness. The result of this coaching is a flawed perception that we are not allowed to show real weaknesses, gaps, or areas for development during the interview. We believe that any acknowledgement of these things will immediately disqualify us.
Last time I checked, I personally have a laundry list of weaknesses. My wife would be happy to be cited as a reference here. Yet somehow, I've been able to get hired and perform pretty well in roles all the way up to the VP level.
You can call me a dreamer (I think some guy named John Lennon said something like that), but I wish we would all ditch that coaching and give more real and honest answers to this question.
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That coaching has led to some annoying "weakness-proof" answers that most of us have heard. Some of these answers I have received as an interviewer may sound familiar:
- "I'm a perfectionist. I just want things to be really great, so I'll work tirelessly to get it exactly right. That's a weakness I'm working on."
- "I work too hard and can be too dedicated."
- "I just care too much."
Oh boy. As a leader, I can't always claim to have made the best decisions or have used the best judgment – but I definitely don't remember the last time I told a candidate that I couldn't in hire someone who was going to be too dedicated or work too hard. Or the last time I told someone that we just weren't looking to hire people who cared a lot, much preferring to bring on people who didn't care one way or the other as long as they got paid at the end of the week.
An argument could definitely be made that the types of things being alluded to in the "my strength is actually my weakness" answers like those I just mentioned can be problems when taken to extreme levels. Most of the time, though, these answers are just ways for us to avoid speaking honestly about our weaknesses. The more we keep doing that, the more we all lose in the corporate world.
Ironically, I have found that some of my best hires have been the people who have been really honest about what they don't know, what experiences they haven't had, or what challenges they've struggled with. I interviewed a young manager years ago who told me that he was really bad at conflict, especially when it came to performance challenges with his team, because he wanted everyone to be inspired and excited about their work.
I hired him for his self-awareness – one of the most important traits any good manager or leader can have. I admired someone who had the managerial courage to be transparent about something he needed to work on. It also helped both of us manage expectations and build the right development plan for him when he joined the company.
So maybe the next time you get asked the hard question about your weaknesses, you should give a real answer. Of course, we wouldn't want the pendulum to swing so far over to the other side that you depict yourself as a walking buffoon. But take a risk and talk about an honest weakness. You might find that your interviewer will be happy to hear it.
James Sudakow is principal of CH Consulting, Inc., and author of Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit ... and Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World. How well do you know corporate jargon? Take the quiz here.