What is Your Greatest Weakness?
You may have been drawn to this article so that you can prepare adequately for the most challenging question in a job interview. I am going to go a step ahead and provide you more insights that you need for a job interview conversation. If you understand this part effectively, you will become a better parent, a better individual, a great employee and a great leader. When you understand something effectively and use language to communicate it well, the other side, in this case, the interviewer, will see through your honesty. When you say something just for the heck of it, a wise person can quickly see through you as well.
Recruiters and companies are gearing up to hire for personality over skills. They know that a good personality can offset for any deficiency in skills. The “Greatest Weakness” question was designed to get insights into your personality, but, has become more or less a cliche. Interviewers know that they will not get an honest answer to this question and candidates research enough to avoid giving an honest answer to this question. One can be articulate without being honest, and once again, you run the risk of exposing the fault lines between what you think and what you say. There are two more parts to this problem. There is a large coaching industry that coaches candidates “how to hack job interviews” and there are a lot of recruiters who do not understand the deeper aspects of personality dynamics. If they did, they would be psychologists rather than recruiters.
I have hired a lot of people in my previous roles and now work with professionals where we help them identify “needles in the haystack”. “Finding Needles” in the stack is a metaphor for recognition of a chosen attribute or quality in a given context or environment. Venture Capitalists are looking for a startup that will be the next disruptive billion dollar idea while at the same time searching for any deception in the pitches, potential mates are looking for their soulmates, recruiters are looking for the “rare find” and stock brokers are searching for a trend or discontinuity that will make them a windfall gain. As you can see, if you can find needles in the haystack, the skill will automatically get carried over to other parts of your life. Most recruiters like most job candidates are just in a job where they have to tick a box and not passionate enough to learn and understand the deeper aspects of their motivations which can create sustainable interest.
Although I can provide a concept, philosophy and examples of answering this question well, you will be well served if you understand the concept and embed your own honest experiences into them. Now, you can use language framing to answer the question well.
How do candidates answer the questions around their greatest weaknesses?
Most candidates will use semantics (the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning) to evade, mask, generalise or accidentally reveal their biggest weaknesses. The most common ways to answer this question are :
- Trying to turn a negative into positive or vice versa.
- Revealing all their weaknesses implicitly by telling past stories during scenario questions.
- Evading the question by veering off the topic.
- Freezing and being unable to answer the question at all.
What are Strengths and Weakness and how do they Evolve?
As I have already mentioned above, the best way to answer any question is first to understand the domain well. I do not expect you to become a psychology major, but, most good recruiters and hiring managers can quickly identify candidates who have done some work in personal development versus those who are repeating rote learning based answers.
Strengths and Weaknesses are attributes or dimensions of a person’s character or personality. They indicate how a person deals with various situations and contexts as they navigate through different situations in life and work. Strengths and Weakness can also be called “adaptive responses“. A person can use situations which offer a high potential for failure or setbacks and using their adaptive skills (strengths) turn the situation from a potential failure to a successful one. As we discussed in “What can we Learn from Elon Musk about S-Curves“, some individuals may be faced with situations which offer a high potential for success but using their adaptive response (weaknesses) convert a potential success into a failure. We can replace situations with people or a group of people and situations, and we will see the same pattern of behaviour.
Strengths and Weaknesses may be static or dynamic. The adaptive response is continuously adapting to a given situation using our mannerisms and behaviours. Mannerism is an unconscious habitual pattern based responses peculiar to an individual, while Behaviors are mannerisms in a given context. Mannerisms may be genetic or learnt from our family and culture of origin. Traits are an identifying habit, characteristic or trend. For the same set of mannerisms, we may have developed a more diverse set of context shaped responses called behaviours. If we carefully analyse a range of behaviours expressed by an individual over a span of time and over a range of situations, we can identify their core mannerisms. An example may help, so, I will tell you a real story while withholding names and keeping the story gender neutral.
I was assigned an analyst as an indirect reportee who used to carry out a range of market analysis, competitive research and tracked new bids and opportunities. This person was abrasive while interacting with everyone except the immediate and direct reporting boss. However, based on who this person was dealing with, the response was calibrated to avoid trouble. Dealing with a senior person abrasively could get this person in trouble, so the abrasiveness and condescending attitude were significantly toned down. On the other hand, this person’s interaction with peers or juniors was more abrasive and combative. Analyzing this person’s behavior over a span of time (around 1 year), in a range of situations (high stress, low stress, no stress) and in interactional dynamics (direct reportee, indirect reportee, peers, juniors, immediate colleagues, distant colleagues), we were able to draw a hypothesis around this persons core mannerisms and attitudes. If you have a deep interest in transactional psychology, you can also do a regression analysis to understand the initial family environment that shaped this person’s core mannerisms. In a documentary series “Up Series“, Granada Television selected children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films material from those of the fourteen who choose to participate. As we have discussed elsewhere, our intuition can immediately size up the core mannerisms of the individuals we are dealing with, however, keeps most of the information hidden from our conscious awareness. Specifically, in the dynamics around Mate Recognition, unconscious coupling and uncoupling processes, the intuition of potential mates exactly size up how the individual behaviours will reveal core mannerisms over time series or time span and slowly reveals the hidden information to the mates.
Coming back to the story about the analyst, the existing boss accepted this person’s abrasive behaviour as he wanted to project power and unable to do it himself, he found a proxy in the analyst. The analyst kept growing and doing well instead of the evident pattern of behaviour that was causing some turbulence in the system. Soon enough, this person’s immediate boss got fired, and the reporting lines changed. The new manager fired this person within four months as he had a low threshold for accepting the abrasive behaviour. We also found out months after the firing that the previous employer and the future employer identified the same problems in the individual before terminating the person.
Using this story, you can see that people have core mannerisms which they can calibrate or even mask in given situations by projecting behaviours which are divorced or distant from their core mannerisms or attitudes. It is also clear that both mannerisms and behaviours are context-dependent and are dynamic rather than static. As the situation changes, the mannerisms and behaviours that resulted in success could now lead to failure. Good recruiters are tending to identify core mannerisms and attitudes that not only fit the job roles but, should also match with the organisational values and ethos. Remember, I said, tending to, as it takes time, multiple situations and context to arrive at a fairly good understanding of how an individual is likely to behave in a given set of conditions. To the given question, if a recruiter is looking for a more deeper response, providing a static list of your weaknesses may not get your selected for the role. If a recruiter is looking for a more static list of weaknesses, then, providing a deeper philosophical response will also lead to failure.
What is the best way to Answer “The Greatest Weakness Question.”
I have listed two scenarios which have been used successfully by my peer network after lengthy discussions with me to get into great roles solely based on answering the tricky question around “greatest weaknesses” well.
Scenario 1 – Recruiting for a Middle Management Role in General Management (Selected)
Interviewer – The role requires interacting with a diverse set of teams who are virtually co-located. Each region has an independent head and in the past candidates have struggled to manage relationships due to the matrix management structure. What are your best strengths and weaknesses that may make you suitable/unsuitable for this role?
Candidate – First, I have managed relationships in a similar matrix structure in my existing role. Though they have difficult interactional dynamics, I believe that by understand and respecting cultural norms, one can develop deeper relationships. Secondly, I see strengths and weaknesses as dynamic in nature, and they are context dependent, they are dependent on many other factors. My biggest weakness was the inability to understand the dynamic and fluid nature of our traits across a span of time or across situations. Once I understood this, I started spending considerable time in personal development and get rid of more fixed, deep-rooted perceptions and behaviours. So, in a way, I was able to convert my greatest weakness i.e. lack of self-awareness to a constant, continuous, improved awareness where I am on a path to Personal Kaizen (Continuous Improvement). As such, I think that the people who failed in this role probably had less awareness of the contexts in which they were operating and even lesser awareness of their deep-rooted behaviours, perceptions and biases. My deeper understanding of my weaknesses has allowed me to turn my weaknesses into strengths while at the same time remaining mindfully aware that my strengths could suddenly, without warning turn into a weakness any moment. My biggest or greatest weakness was “hubris”, and my biggest strength is the “Person Kaizen” or the “Anti-Hubris Trait”.
Scenario 2 – Interviewing for a Project Managers Role in Defense Logistics Industry (Selected)
Interviewer – What is your potential weakness that would make you unsuitable for this Job?
Candidate – If you asked this question to a previous version of me, I would rattle out a list of potential weaknesses and we could be on our way home in less than 5 minutes. You are talking about the current updated version of me, which is updated every week and I do ask myself the same question you asked me before I get into any situation. You see, I am looking for a career and not a job. To succeed in the role and to be satisfied with the work I am doing is more important to me than the money the role pays. To answer your question directly, I think what makes me or anyone unsuitable for a high-stress role in a front line location is a lack of heightened awareness of the surroundings and environment, the inability to predict problems in the project scope and timeline. The worst is the failure to prepare for contingencies. When I was young, I was mentored by a senior executive who went to great lengths to explain to me the bipolarity of strengths and weaknesses. His view was that Steve Jobs had developed a combative and rough personality in this childhood, unable to deal with the anger of being abandoned by his biological parents. He become stubborn and a loner. As he told me, he saw this as Steve Jobs biggest weakness and biggest personality flaw. But, he applied the same weakness to entrepreneurship pursuits converting it to strength. What may seem stubborn to some may appear as persistent to others. His social ineptness also less to solitary pursuits of his interests which led to success at Apple. Once again, his strengths turned into weaknesses when he was ejected from Apple as he was unable to see his flaws after continued success. After some tempering at Pixar and Nexus, he came back a much better leader. Weaknesses are not static, they are dynamic, and my biggest strength is to be super aware of the dynamic nature in which I am embedded. My biggest weakness would be the inability to see when that strength converts to a weakness. I hope it never happens, but such a weakness would make me suitable for such a role.
Key Points to Answer “The Greatest Weakness Question”
a) You are not perfect and implying that you are perfect may signal to the recruiter that you are blind to your flaws.
b) Rattling out a list of static weaknesses ignores the fact that those static weaknesses may turn into strengths across given contexts and situations if you decide to adapt to the situation. Static weakness list etches the weaknesses associated with a candidate in the recruiter’s mind.
c) The biggest weakness in each of us is the inability to understand how weaknesses and strengths can quickly morph into their polar opposites in different situations. As we discussed in the article “What can we learn from Elon Musk“, individuals and companies fail to notice except in hindsight that they are infected with hubris. As such, big strengths that make us blind to the rapidly evolving environment are the biggest weaknesses that may inflict us. Most of our weaknesses are hidden in our perceived strengths which makes them harder to search and rectify.
d) Mannerisms are core unconscious behavior patterns, while they may lead to a range of diverse behaviours across contexts. Scenario questions in interviews are designed to use various scenarios to get insights about your core mannerisms and behaviors. Steve Jobs social ineptness and stubborn/persistent polarity was evident in a large range of situations.
e) Strengths and Weaknesses have bipolar attributes. The same strength or same weakness can create successful outcomes in a given context (once again the Steve Jobs example).
f) Story Telling allows a tapestry of rich experiences to be communicated. The story about being mentored by a senior executive and coached about the complexities of strengths and weaknesses impressed the interviewer. The interviewer made a particular note of this story and passed on a word to a significantly senior management executive who personally interviewed the candidate and selected him on the spot. The executive also made a special note that he was enlightened by the wisdom of the candidate.
g) Do not deceive, do not embellish or lie when you answer this question. It is fairly easy to get caught. Remember to market yourself ethically.
h) Do not evade the answer or mask the answer. Use the holistic argument we made above to signal to the recruiter that you are constantly improving yourself, you are not perfect, but you are super aware of your weakness in a dynamic sense, specifically hubris. It will help you nail that great next job.