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Common job issues and solutions in Human Resources

Weaknesses Aren’t All Bad


{#/pub/images/WeaknessesArnentAllBad.jpg}By Joseph Skursky, President of Market Leader Solutions

How many times have you read an article or Q&A forum regarding the classic interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” If you never have, here’s a spoiler alert – the topic is rarely positive and the supporting responses are quite caustic. 


Do you use this question yourself or perhaps someone else in your organization? In the proper context and with the right objective in mind, it’s a highly effective question to ask. More on that in a moment. 


I recently read yet another article on this subject, and the author was quite adamant that the question was not only ineffective, it was offensive. Offensive to the point that it was declared the equivalent of asking how much “adult” material one watches. In other words, it is too personal, too “nosy”, and too forward of a question to ask in an interview. The responses to the article were (not surprisingly) equally disapproving of the question. 


Some even think it to be some type of “trick” question, designed to trip up the candidate in an effort to disqualify them. Many of the articles point to politically correct answers or somehow relating those weaknesses as “new strengths.” This is supposed to be helpful for job candidates so they can schmooze their way into a job. It might be a short-term win for the candidate, but the deception is a long-term loss for the company that is hiring. 


Before moving forward, let me state that if you are using the, “What is your greatest weakness?” question as a trick question, you’re missing the higher value. 



Know Weakness, or No Strength

One of the more interesting observances I’ve made over my career, particularly as I deal with international clients, is that most Americans are not very introspective. As a result, people are not truthful with themselves about their weaknesses, and worse still, not clear about their strengths. 


Only after I made these observations did I discover that I was decades late on my analysis. 


The late management consultant, Peter Drucker, said this:

“Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.”


Until you know your weaknesses, it is nearly impossible to know your true strengths. The reason is that most discoveries of what is “great” begin with the de-selection or elimination of what is not so good. 


When baseball legend Ted Williams was in his early career, he hired someone to analyze the pitches he hit to get on base. He broke the batter’s box into a grid of 27 mini-zones to determine which pitch in which zone got the highest probability of getting a hit. Some of the mini-zones were strikes which had low probability of getting on base – and he let those pass for the first two strikes or became very good at hitting foul balls after two strikes. This analysis helped him focus on those specific areas that made him the great ballplayer he became because he knew the areas where he had a high probability of success... his strength.



Strong Strengths, Weak Weaknesses

No matter what someone tries to ‘spin’ in their answer to the question, there are no strengths without weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses are a zero-sum game, which means that weak weaknesses generally imply strong strengths, and strong strengths always have weaknesses of some sort. 


Today’s business culture values specialists who can produce extraordinary results in their niche. The best of these have strong strengths, and no surprise…weak weaknesses. 


What hiring manager wouldn’t jump at the chance to employ a thoroughbred sales person who can consistently overachieve quota and be a model for other reps to follow their success pattern? Yet how many opportunities like this are missed (or dismissed) because the rep is just lousy with paperwork?


Over the past decade, I’ve reviewed nearly 6000 “personality” assessments, and occasionally I see someone with what I’ll call ‘balanced’ behavior or values. In this sense, there are no perceived weaknesses – all of the behavioral factors or values are fairly the same. This type of person is ‘lukewarm’, meaning that they don’t have anything that stands out as promotable, and they can be very difficult to motivate. 


As a result, I’ve never hired someone like this – having no weakness – nor have I recommended any of my clients hire someone who is so ‘balanced’. This is not because of the ‘balance’ itself, but primarily because they don’t have strong strengths. In case this sounds like the focus is all about weakness, remember that the reason for hiring in the first place is based on bringing strength to the organization. 



Knowing Strengths & Weaknesses Isn’t Enough

A study called The Genius Project was conducted about five years ago with the objective to understand what made some people perform extraordinarily above all others. The final score was based on whether the person was:

  1. Below average

  2. Average

  3. Above average

  4. Excellent

  5. Genius


The surprising result is that ‘genius’ had nothing to do with IQ, Emotional Intelligence (directly), or specific attributes. Two factors separated ‘genius’ level performance from all others: Self Awareness and Authenticity. 


Self Awareness is how well a person understands their true talents (strengths) and non-talents (weaknesses), and the results of the research indicate that not everyone knows what their true talents are. 


Authenticity, as defined by the study, is when a person is true to their natural strengths and avoids those areas that expose weakness. Note that it does not deny the weakness, it simply does not engage in those areas prone to failure. 


In real terms, this is much like Ted Williams taking 2 ‘called’ strikes because he knew his on-base average from that pitch was low. 


Your interview process should seek to identify the presence of Self Awareness and Authenticity in every candidate. When you know the answers, you can predict the real potential for success well in advance. Without the answers, you roll the dice with ‘hope’ as your hiring strategy.



The Question Revisited

Every interview question should have a pre-determined purpose for discovery, and “What’s your greatest weakness” is no different. 


When I ask this question, I first want to know how self-aware the candidate is. A byproduct is that I will often discover how truthful they are and have been in the interview. 


If the candidate has made it to this point in the interview process, I have already assessed them, which means that I have a good idea of what their weaknesses are. I just want to know if they know it too. 


With a truthful answer, I can dig deeper into how they deal with their weakness. In this, I find their level of authenticity to their natural talents and non-talents. Fortunately, authenticity is easier to “fix” through effective coaching, so a poor answer here simply suggests that they will only be average or above average. With focused coaching and adapting the role to fit the talent, we can achieve excellent or genius level performance over time. 


The key thing to note is that there is no trickery within the question or desire to eliminate someone because they have confessed their weakness. Instead, it’s about measuring how well the person can be expected to perform and what might need to happen to maximize their potential.  



Interviewer Beware

The author of the previously mentioned article suggested that the candidate turns the question around to the interviewer. While I think too few will have the guts to do it, let’s pretend they do. 


Can you answer it with confidence? 


Until you can because you’ve taken the time to know yourself (and hopefully be authentic too), you won’t ask with the confident purpose intended in the question itself. If you can’t ask it with purpose, your results will be mixed at best. Here’s a parting thought to help you achieve better results for yourself and your hiring process:


“Use feedback analysis to identify your strengths. Then go to work on improving your strengths. Identify and eliminate bad habits that hinder the full development of your strengths. Figure out what you should do and do it. Finally, decide what you should not do.” ~ Peter Drucker

{#/pub/images/JosephSkursky.jpg}Written by Joseph Skursky, President of Market Leader Solutions   

For almost 20 years, Joseph Skursky has been growing businesses and advising leaders in companies across North America. His model of Leadership, People, and Execution provides a clear roadmap to grow almost any business. It has been field-tested and proven effective for over 9 years. Joseph Skursky helps companies hire with confidence, manage without frustration, and increase both productivity and profitability. His “Hire Hard, Manage Easy” system  has earned the respect of colleagues and clients alike. More importantly, it delivers consistent results.


Do you have a question for Joseph?  Please visit our Human Resources Community, he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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