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What's a Weakness?

"What's your greatest weakness?"

It's a common question asked of job-seekers. Interviewers typically use the question to assess if a candidate can demonstrate a level of self-awareness about an opportunity area, ideally paired with a story about what they've done (or are doing) to improve.


Candidates who answer, "I don't have any weaknesses" get a failing grade because it means they're unable or unwilling to identify any opportunity areas. And we all have them.


But let's assume that a candidate does provide a response. Something like, "I'm a perfectionist. I hate letting go of something until it's perfect, no matter how long it takes!"


At that point, whether a given character trait is a "weakness" is often a matter of perspective: your personal point of view will matter just as much as the candidate's actual response. For instance, I tend to like perfectionists; they're usually very thorough and produce great work, even it does sometimes mean the work arrives later than you might like.


"I won't take 'no' for an answer. I just keep at it until I get what I want."

Do you consider that persistent or stubborn?


"I'd rather do something than talk about doing something."

Is that impulsive or action-oriented?


"I prefer to be straight with people so everything is clear and there's no room for misinterpretation."

Admirably candid, or unnecessarily insensitive?


Often your greatest strengths can also serve as your greatest weaknesses, and vice-versa. It's all a matter of perspective.


If you're interviewing a candidate, you should keep an open mind as to what truly constitutes a weakness under all circumstances. If you're hiring a book editor, "I have trouble with spelling" is probably a legitimate deal-breaker. But it might not be if you need a charismatic salesperson, a friendly receptionist, or a computer programmer.


Better yet, avoid the question altogether: there are more interesting ways to understand a candidate's self-awareness.


Instead of asking candidates flat-out for their "greatest weaknesses" (which is already going to make them defensive), ask them, "What's one thing you've changed about yourself over the past five years, and why did you change it?" That will help you understand a candidate's perspective on what "ideal" looks like without framing the question in terms of a current shortcoming, and may provide more insight as to the type of behaviour you might expect post-hire.


Or perhaps you might ask, "Imagine you were to travel to the future and meet yourself ten years from now. How do you think these two people would be alike, and how would they be different?" This question requires the candidate to be slightly more imaginative, but try it for yourself... you may quickly realize the differences you see can provide insight as to how you spend (and plan to spend) your time. Think about it: if you half-joke that your future self would be, "older and more out of shape", it's unlikely you're in the process of implementing a healthier lifestyle you plan to continue indefinitely, right?


When I was in school, I had an accounting professor that said the answer to every question is always, "It depends." That can apply to the interview question as well...


"What's your greatest weakness?"


"Well, that depends... what do you consider a weakness?"

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