“What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”: A Guide to Authentic Answers

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“What are your greatest strengths?”

Now, here’s a question familiar to anyone who’s ever interviewed for a job.  And the follow-up question?  Yep, you’ve got it….say it out loud.

“And what are you greatest weaknesses?”

Ugh….(A collective groan from both the job hunter and the job holder)

Why do we hate these questions so much?  Very simply, it’s because we instinctively feel we need to embellish the former and hide from the latter.  Aside from complete narcissists, we’ve been taught not to toot our own horns too loudly, and we’ve been taught since early childhood that weaknesses are character flaws.  But should we?  And are they?  These are two fundamental questions that we all should be asking ourselves daily, whether we’re searching for jobs or not.

does-boasting-boost-a-speechLet’s tackle the first of the two…is it okay to boast about one’s strengths? (Trevor, if you use the word “boast,” then few are going to say it’s alright).  Okay….how about if I word it like this?  Is it good to share one’s strengths with others?

Worded that way, I doubt many would see this as a negative.  We all have strengths, be they because we’ve worked our butts off to get really good at a skill or body of knowledge or just because we are naturally gifted or even that we just feel we’re better at those things that we prefer doing.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, in any organizational setting, we want to know where we shine and where those around us similarly have strengths.  Because, trust me, none of us have exactly the same strengths, preferences, or predilections, and heaven knows, I need someone who’s good at detail oriented work to balance out my preference for visioning and theorizing!

As leaders, we want to have a balanced team where one member’s strengths offset weakness (or lack of preference) of others.  In my ideal team, I want a good mix of those who can brainstorm and design and those who prefer to carry out the vision.  I’m seeking those who like to get down and dirty in the weeds with those whose spirit bends the currents of the high clouds.  Each are equally valuable, and if I can’t find people who will openly tell me where they thrive, well, I’ll move on to those who can.  So, yes, one’s ability to self-assess and accurately discuss one’s strengths is critical.

improve-your-weakness-3But what about the weaknesses?  Most can likely see that the same arguments could be made for this, but this one’s a bit trickier for most of us.  So, what do we tend to answer when asked this question?  Something like, “Well, I tend to care too much,” or “I’m a workaholic,” or “I have trouble saying ‘No’ at times.”

So, what’s wrong with that?  Here’s what’s wrong with these answers…they are spun attempts to appeal to the ideals we think others want.  “I care too much” translates to “I’m extremely dedicated and in-tune to others’ feelings.”  “I’m a workaholic” translates to “I will put in whatever time necessary to get the job done.”  And “I have trouble saying ‘No’” translates to “Just tell me what needs doing and it shall be so.”

Are these truly weaknesses?  In very rare cases, yes.  In most cases, no.  They are strengths we are trying to portray in a way that makes them SOUND like weaknesses.  And ultimately, that’s an authenticity issue, if you ask me.

You see, if you truly wanted to tell someone your weaknesses, instead of “I care too much,” you’d say, “I have trouble taking care of myself physically and emotionally.”  Instead of “I’m a workaholic,” you’d say that you recognize the need to get better about balancing your work and personal lives.  And instead of saying, “I have trouble saying ‘no’,” you’d say, “I really struggle with prioritization and accurately estimating time resources.”

Better yet, you’d follow up with an action plan for how you are currently working on overcoming that weakness.  Now THAT would be impressive!

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As we all know (and I stated earlier), we all have weaknesses.  That doesn’t make us bad people, poor choices as employees, or inferior to anyone else.  When we acknowledge (truly) those things that provide ongoing challenges to us, we’re building our brand as authentic human beings and demonstrating humility.  And that’s a tremendously powerful strength in any relationship!

It’s not easy to always show that humility or demonstrate that vulnerability, but doing so is a key step in our own self-development.  And it’s a step that speaks volumes to any quality hiring manager you may encounter. (Trust me, if the interview looks down on you for being authentic, it’s truly not a place where you want to be hired anyway!)

brand-authenticitySo, what are some of your authentic weaknesses?  Some of mine include: 1) I tend to be a self-starter, but a weak self-finisher, something that has prompted me to build accountability systems with others, whereby they will hold me to task in follow-through on projects.  2) Despite my military background, I’m can be easily distracted and disorganized.  To combat this, I actively work on utilizing lists and taking time each day to organize my work space and the day ahead (both of which I really don’t enjoy doing), and 3) I’m not a good negotiator, and my on-going challenge is to continue seeking better ways to engage myself in this uncomfortable process (not yet getting better, but still trying).

So, take the time to really think about your weaknesses and whether you’re being authentic in how you typically talk about them.  I’d challenge you to use the authentic approach with a self-designed action plan structure to addressing these whenever they come up in conversation (whether in interviews or not).  But realize that you’ll never have equal strengths in all areas and with all things.  That’s unrealistic and, quite honestly, inhuman.  And who wants to be that!?!?

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