One of the basic interview prep pieces of advice is to rehearse an answer for “what’s your greatest weakness?”
I really dislike this question: because only some answers are allowed.
So often it’s asked because the interviewer has pulled it from a list of things to ask in interview, and so often it’s answered with something glib and unrevealing. You ask the question, I say the thing I prepared, we move on. You haven’t learnt anything about me, you haven’t prepared for receiving this info, you aren’t going to work with me to plan how we mitigate or improve this.
I don’t dispute that it’s useful to know someone’s skill-gaps, to verify their level of self-awareness, to gauge how humble they are, to learn how receptive they are to feedback from others, to understand their learning & self-development plans and approach. But with this question, and the way it’s deployed, you won’t get there.
All the many many many thinkpieces and advice snippets for how to share your Greatest Weakness focus on palatable gaps. Say, maybe you’re a perfectionist. Maybe you just care too much. Maybe you love to help others so sometimes have to work long hours to achieve your goals. Maybe you have a visionary understanding of where the industry is about to pivot to and you’re only just starting to get ahead of the curve.
It’s like body hair. Women’s body hair in particular.
The body hair that we’re allowed
We celebrate women (white cis women who are conventionally attractive according western beauty norms) when they transgress the ideal of hairlessness. Hey Halsey didn’t shave her underarms and she’s on the cover of Rolling Stone with her armpits out, that’s a powerful feminist move.
Even unshaven legs are a symbol of non-conforming.
There are heaps of “my story” pieces in women’s magazines both online and offline about why someone chose not to remove all their body hair BUT they are all focussed on the acceptable transgressions, the palatable decisions to diverge from the norm.
Ladies, if you’re “beautiful” enough, you can decide to not shave your legs or underarms. That’s the message we take away.
And yet we don’t even mention upper lip hair; toe hair; that weird long hair that grows out of the middle of your forehead; nipple hair; back hair. And we CERTAINLY don’t engage with the idea that maybe it’s a bold feminist choice to leave the hair to grow as it does.
We’re so focussed on performing vulnerability, performing boldness, that we don’t dig deep and truly examine these things and benefit from them.
Do I want to remove my bodyhair? If only partly, can I focus on the parts that are irritating or time consuming, not the parts deemed socially permissible?
The Greatest Weaknesses that we’re allowed
We find ourselves in the same position when confronted with “what’s your greatest weakness?”
There are weaknesses we are allowed to have, allowed to share. And others that we can’t touch on even when they’re true, even when they’re important for our future manager to know, even when we’re still eminently hirable with these weaknesses.
Nobody is perfect, after all.
Do I want to acknowledge my imperfections? If so, can I do so in a way that imparts useful directional info to a future manager? Is it not also harmful to me to perform invulnerability when I’ll need this person, this future manger, to support and guide me to level up?
So please stop asking “what’s your greatest weakness”. Please stop preparing glib answers. Let’s have a real conversation instead.
Do what you want with your body hair, folks, and stop casting judgement on others.
And, perhaps more pertinently, interview better.
Here are some of the questions I’ve used to achieve the goal that I think we ought to be aiming for when we consider asking this question:
- what have you learnt about yourself in the last year?
- how would you manager describe you? Would your coworkers say anything different? Why do you think that?
- What skills do you want to learn or improve here?
- If you join us, how would you want us to support your personal development?
- What’s the most useful feedback you’ve received? How have you used that feedback?
- If we’re building a well-rounded team, what skills should we look for in the next person we hire to work alongside you?
- What do you want to get better at?
- How do you approach new problems that our completely out of your comfort zone? Do you have an example?
- Tell me about a time when you got stuck at work. How did you get past it? Who helped you?
- Looking back at the job ad for this role, which parts do you think you’ll find most challenging?
Interviewees: flip it.
Pick one of the above, answer that instead, then ask the person interviewing you how they have supported someone in mitigating or overcoming their biggest weakness.
Then we can have real conversations, learn things about each other, and stop doing the dance where we say things for no reason.