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Thursday, September 4, 2008

no, you really do have weaknesses

Apparently there is a new superhuman breed walking among us, utterly free of weaknesses.

In interviews, I always try to get candidates to speak honestly about their downsides. I do this because I'm trying to have an honest conversation about their fit for the job -- and about the job's fit for them. I do this not because I'm trying to trip them up, but because don't want to put someone in a job they're going to struggle in, never excel in, or that I'll end up having to fire them from.

I do this in a bunch of ways -- obviously, by delving into past experiences and probing around about their skills, approach, etc. But I also do it by asking questions like, say, "What kind of feedback have you received from managers, both in terms of what they say you excel at and things you've been encouraged to do differently?" Yeah, it's the old strengths and weaknesses in a not-so-good disguise.

Sometimes candidates can't or don't come up with critical feedback they've received. Fine, maybe they've had crappy managers who don't bother to give feedback. So then I ask this: "If you were your own manager and could wave a magic wand over your head, what would you tweak?"

Lately, I've encountered a lot of seemingly stunned candidates who are clearly at a loss for an answer.

This baffles me for two reasons:

1. If you're job searching, how are you not prepared to be asked to speak about weaknesses? Did you really have no inkling this might be coming?

2. More importantly, are you so lacking in self-awareness and insight that you don't have an answer to this? Or are you just unwilling to answer it honestly? Either way, you fail.

Today, a woman actually told me, "I really can't think of anything I'd change. It's hard for me to imagine something I couldn't do well."

Wow. I think pretty damn highly of myself, and there are still hundreds of things I could rattle off at a moment's notice that I'd like to be able to do better. Some of them are serious weaknesses.

This phenomenon is such a weird combination of naivete, arrogance, and lack of thoughtfulness, and it is happening so much lately that it's making me want to stab someone with a fork.


Evil HR Lady said...

So, serious question here, oh brilliant manager. Here's my weakness--I can't bluff. This means if someone says something stupid in a meeting, even if I can say something polite and positive, my face still shows that I think the person is an idiot.

In order to prevent this from happening, there are some people who I prefer not to meet with face to face. I can be nice as pie over the phone because they can't see my expressions.

Would that be a totally awful thing to bring up about me? I've tried and tried to fix it, but everyone always knows exactly how I feel about everything.

I feel so confessional. And I'm not even job hunting!

Alison said...

Ha, I have a good friend who has that problem. I love it about her.

Actually, I think this illustrates why it's so useful to just be honest about this stuff. Some managers (like me) are going to love that answer (or at least not have a major objection to it), and others won't. Since you want to end up working with someone who isn't going to have a major objection to something about you that you can't change, throwing it out there will screen out managers who you're less likely to work well with.

I know that some people's response is that not everyone has the luxury of picking and choosing jobs in that way. Sometimes financial realities mean that you really need that job offer, no matter what. So I suppose the disclaimer here needs to be that this is the approach to take when you're seeking out a position that you'll love and thrive in long-term, as opposed to when you're seeking to address immediate, pressing needs.

Alison said...

Although actually, I think if an interviewer were going to have a problem with your inability to hide what you're thinking, I think that would only be because they'd be worrying about how it manifests in practice -- i.e., are you CONSTANTLY thinking negative and critical things that you can't hide, or is it only occasional? So I think the key would be to address that up front and make it clear that it's the latter (assuming that's the case, of course).

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll bite.

Yes, EVERY JOB CANDIDATE needs to be ready for the "weaknesses" question, because of all you recruiters who so RELENTLESSY keep bringing it up.

But, a question: so long as we're being all confessional and honest, shouldn't the people conducting the interview also give each candidate a run-down of all the weaknesses about the company, too?

Alison said...

Hell yes! And you should be very suspicious of any interviewer who won't tell you the downsides. It's just plain stupid for an interviewer not to -- it's way better for a candidate to get into the job and be pleasantly surprised than unpleasantly surprised. I go out of my way to talk about downsides of the job, as truth in advertising, because I want candidates who aren't going to be able to deal with those things to self-select out.

Anonymous said...

My biggest weakness is I can't stop reading Ask A Manager's blog because it RAWKS :)

Anonymous said...

I have seen this in candidates for a while - not all but some. I am actually embarrassed for them - so lacking in self awareness so many ways. The older I get the more acutely aware I am of my deficits!

Another way I try to get the lightbulb effect is to ask about colleagues and managers. Ask the candidate if s/he could give feedback to each about areas to improve, what would it be? It's not surprising to me that most have SOME critique ... at which point I can turn it around and ask if they might say similar things about the candidate?

One candidate was so stunned that she just stared at me. I think I ruined her day.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I have to ask--are you seeing this (i.e. lack of self-awareness, invincibility to weaknesses, etc.) more in younger people interviewing or is it across the spectrum?
As a person who used to be almost hyper-focused on my weaknesses I learned how to answer this question appropriately. I'm now more focused on my strengths, but I know what trips me up and will freely admit to it in an interview. I don't want to take a job where I'm not a good fit. Is learning to understand oneself becoming a lost art?

Evil HR Lady said...

So, HR Wench is seriously a suck up. I always suspected.

But, in answer to your question, I'm not negative constantly. There are only a few people or topics that I think are so amazingly stupid that I can't mask my expressions.

I telecommute now, so it's a moot point. I am diligently working on it, though.

Alison said...

@ hr wench: You are hired.

@ hr maven: Ha, nicely done. I too am baffled. I'm always debating how much to handhold them through figuring it out.

@ anonymous: I definitely see it more in younger/less experienced people, although I've been surprised a few times to see it in people with several decades of professional experience. How do you get through almost an entire career without having any sense of areas where you struggle?

@ evil hr lady: Yeah, so I think the key would just be to preempt their worries in that regard and say up front that it's only occasional. I actually think it's a good choice of something to bring up. If someone's weakness is "I don't suffer fools gladly," it sounds like a positive masquerading as a weakness -- but the way you've put it, it's a honest offering of something you really would like to change.

Anonymous said...

Step away from the the fork!

But seriously: My angle for interviews is to ask the candidate something they struggle with in their daily work, or errors they have made in the past and how they have worked to resolve or overcome them. They feel ok divulging the weaknesses because its framed in terms of their achievement over them. And it gives me a real sense of if they already see themselves as someone who needs to constantly learn and develop, which if I am hiring them, I really hope they do.

Susan Ireland said...

I love that you've brought this up. As a job counselor, I'd like to help job seekers answer this sort of question in a way that's honest, satisfies the interviewer, wins a job that's a good fit, and supports the job seeker's self-esteem.

Since I started my blog (The Job Lounge) I've been shocked at the number of people who get fired. I bet it's about equal to the divorce rate. Reasons for being fired range from personality conflict to poor performance. I can't help but think that some of this could be prevented by better job matching, which comes back to your point of interviewers and applicants being honest about their strengths AND weaknesses.

Good discussion, ask a manager.

Anonymous said...

As a software developer, I've worked in several good companies and with very smart people. When I compare myself against those people, I find myself to be a slow-thinker, less analytical and not quick on grasping concepts which have multiple implications and coming up with an assessment on which one is best. On top of that, these people are consistently brilliant and I have highs and lows.

My honest answer would be that I wish I could be smarter and have more brains. How do I tell this to an interviewer?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the problem is that people have an overinflated sense of self, where 65% of workers think they are in the top 25% of their peers.

Anonymous said...

Turning the tables here, I, as a candidate, would probably be inclined to ask something like this: "Now that I've just told you about my weaknesses, what personal traits would make up your 'ideal employee?'" If I don't hear something like "creative, focused, looks for different approaches, knows himself/herself well and/or always looks to improve," then the "greatest weakness" question doesn't mean anything.

And to "almostgotit": I like the way you think!

Anonymous said...

I actually told a candidate last week, "...and don't give me the 'I'm a perfectionist' line because that's just insulting." The we chuckled and they said, "well I ammmm. I really need to do things perfectly, and always am super-aware of the details." They will not be hired. I TOLD them I expected a real assessment of themselves and they didn't even PRETEND to take a minute to think about it. I wanted to reply with, "uhm, don't listen."

Dan McCarthy said...

I love this post and the comments! It just inspired me to write “How to encourage a candidate to admit their weaknesses in a job interview”.

I've been using this recently, and we’ve trained a lot of our sales managers on this technique, and it seems to be working very well.

Shawn King said...

I'm amazed that you are surprised by this "lack of weakness" expressed by your job candidates. What is the number one rule/mantra of the interview game? Stay away from weaknesses. Your own, your previous employers, your spouse, whomever. The drumbeat from a variety of "how to get a job" sources is always the same: Stay positive.

You are never going to "...get candidates to speak honestly..." as long as candidates fear that their honesty is going to cost them a job. Honesty may be the best policy, but it doesn't pay the mortgage (see my comment in your post about the person who lied on her resume).

My biggest weakness is that I can't remember detailed lists. For example, if you need me to do 10 things, I might remember eight of them. So I always have lists--if it's not on my list, you should assume it won't get done. I've discovered that keeping lists is handy for performance reviews as I will have lists of completed tasks. :)

Anonymous said...

The canned answers to this question happen much more with recent grads than with people over 30. If you're 23 and your only experience is a 6 month internship and a summer working as a camp counselor, you haven't really learned your weaknesses yet, and you'll just pop out whatever the job search book told you say. A skilled interviewer, therefore determines strengths and weaknesses by answers given to other questions.

Older professionals are usually much more forthcoming and less willing than 20-somethings to take a job if it doesn't fit on their end. But asking a 23 year old his "strengths and weaknesses" is like asking a 65 year old where he sees himself in 20 years.


Alison said...

Anonymous: Maybe you could say something like, "I've been lucky enough to work with some really brilliant developers, who have made me aspire to be a faster thinker. I would love to be able to analyze problems like ____ and reach a conclusion really quickly."

Shawn: Sure, that's what all the job books advise, but I think it's bad advice. At best, it'll annoy the interviewer for the reasons discussed here, and at worst, it could lead you into a job that you won't be good at. But I do think it's possible to get candidates to speak honestly; at least I've had the good fortune to run into a decent number who understand that it's worth doing.

DG: Definitely more of an understandable problem for recent grads. I wouldn't mind it if a recent grad just said that -- something like, "You know, I have no doubt that once I'm in the working world, I'm going to discover plenty of weaknesses, although because I don't have a lot of experience yet, I don't have a good sense of what they are. But I can tell you that I'm someone who embraces the idea that I have them and wants to work on them." Or whatever. I would much rather hear something humble like that than the recent grad's favorite -- "I work too hard."

Anonymous said...

Tell me your weakness is this most overplayed and least creative interview question out there... stop using it and find a new way to be a tricky a&& of a hiring manager.

Alison said...

Anonymous, part of doing a good interview IS probing for weaknesses. Good interviews will do that in a variety of ways, but part of it is scrutinizing a candidate's own ability to accurately self-assess.

Nora said...

What about something like "I get too emotionally invested in my work"? I am also in the recent-grad-not-much-experience boat, but I do know from campus activity that sometime I have trouble letting things go, leaving work at work, etc. Does this sound false? It's genuinely the only thing I can think of at this point. ("Occasionally I forget attachments on e-mails" and "I don't understand what 'business casual' means" don't seem like promising alternatives.)

Alison said...

Nora, I think the problem with "too emotionally invested in my work" is that even if it's true, it sounds like it's an attempt to offer a real weakness. As an interviewer, I'd think, "And how does that become a problem for the employer?" It's more of a problem for you than your boss, I suspect!

Anonymous said...

"I do this not because I'm trying to trip them up, but because don't want to put someone in a job they're going to ..."

You say that but then you have a list of unacceptable answers; that would be the definition of trying to trip someone up. Putting people off-guard is a reasonable action during the interview process. If you can get someone to act out when they know their career is on the line, how will they behave once you've hired them?

The irony is that you try to take the moral high-ground in your approach to unsettle them but won't accept an equally positive answer.


Alison said...

Anonymous,what I want is an honest conversation about someone's fitness for the role, because it will suck for both of us if they end up in a job that they struggle in. And the fact is, everyone has significant weaknesses, and some of them will probably relate to the job at hand. So we need to figure out if those weaknesses are likely to pose major problems in the role or not. If they are, better for both of us (not just me) that we find out now.

Anonymous said...

I can think of several reasons to not disclose weaknesses in an interview:

1. Feeling or being desperate for a paycheck, as in, your not-quite-a-fit job looks better to me than food stamps, continuing to live at home, etc. (Think Maslow's hierarchy here: survival before self-actualization.)

2. Not having had a good experience with disclosing a weakness to an authority figure be it a parent, a boss or a government agency. It disinclines one to trust others, ya know?

3. Feeling ashamed about one's weaknesses, or conflicted about having them.

4. Having been hounded our of your last job by a boss that saw you as nothing more than a collection of weaknesses (and fearing it will happen again; see #3 above).

5. Having been given interviewing advice that teaches you to rephrase weaknesses as strengths.

6. The sometimes slippery relationship between weaknesses and strengths - one can be hiding behind the other.

All of which doesn't help you put down the fork. The missing ingredient is trust, secondary to the interviewing manager being in a more powerful position: You are the mighty OZ!; I the weak petitioner. Is the answer as simple as letting interviewees see the (wo)man behind the curtain? Show your vulnerability: Talk about your weaknesses first, or admit that it's awkward for you to ask about weaknesses (Is it? It should be.) and awkward for them to answer, but needs to be done because one of your weaknesses is how much you fear making a bad hire and all that happens afterwards. Describing that in detail is just like sticking someone with a fork, with one exception: you can't get arrested for it.

Anonymous said...

sGawd - well that's embarasing: my answer is longer than your original post. Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

First off I absolutely love your blog and think its so resourceful.

I must admit I to have such a problem with stating with my weaknesses because in my head I'm thinking it will turn them off to me.

Like for example, my weaknesses are all based on the fact that I have a very fast paced personality and so sometimes I'm not the best listener or I'll miss a detail.

I'm in the Accounting field, so that surely doesn't go over very well. An accountant that misses details?

In my defense, since I know I do this I've incorporated taking a mandatory extra minute to review work before I turn it in and I make sure to repeat what people say in my head before I answer.

What would be a good way to answer the weakness question with those two weaknesses?

Thanks for your help AskaManager. Your blog is great!

Anonymous said...

First of all, I want to say that this is a great blog. Thank you. the topic of the weakness question. Are interviewers 100% naive to the fact that if someone has done their job for 20 years and is very good at it, they really may not have any 'weaknesses' related to the job. Now, if you want to know about personal weakness...heck yes, everyone has shortcomings. But, that isn't what you want to know. You want them to tell you what weaknesses they have that are related to the job they're applying for. I in all truthfulness cannot think of any weaknesses I have in my job that I have been honing my skills in for the past 20 years. I am one of the best at what I do! Of course I know better than to answer this question honestly. You force me to fabricate a weakness. Yes, yes...I know that for someone to perceive themself as perfect is in itself a flaw. I'm not saying I'm perfect. I'm saying that I honestly don't have any areas of the job that I feel weak about. I have done it for 20 years! I could tell you about some of things I enjoy the least about my work, but is that a weakness? Not really, there are things we enjoy most and least about any job.

This really is a ridiculous question sometimes. I have read that this question is the sign of an inexperienced interviewer. Unfortunately, there is a high turnover in recruiting firms, so you're definitely going to get it. So...come up with the fabricated answer to appease them...what a game.

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog as I was writing a reference that required that I discuss the candidates weaknesses. The January 3, 2009 11:32 PM post summed it up very well-- I could not have said it better!

Anonymous said...

I have always been amazed at how many folks do not prepare for interviews. There are tons of sites like yours, which is quite good BTW, where one can garner insight into the process. Just as this is a sample question one might expect, there are many others - the ol' "tell me about yourself," etcs. I am presently preparing for some interviews, and so have been studying (that's what led me here). In a few sites I gleaned that you can answer the weaknesses question by turning it into a positve, i.e. "I may at times take on too many additional duties because I dont want to say no, which can leave me feeling a little anxious; however, it also introduces me to new tasks and helps me build skills such as multi-tasking, or teaches me how to better delegate." And to those who say they have no weaknesses - well, you may have just found one.