over 3 years ago -

A Psychologist's Guide To Answering 'What Is Your Greatest Weakness?' In A Job Interview

A Psychologist's Guide To Answering

​Although well-designed job interviews are very useful recruitment tools, the typical job interview is far too improvised and unstructured to predict candidates' future job performance. This includes situations where interviewers ask random, arbitrary questions to candidates, and where there's no pre-defined algorithm or scoring card to interpret candidates' responses. As a result, too many interviews are a waste of time. Unsurprisingly, scientific research shows that the majority of candidates engage in deliberate tactics of manipulation during job interviews, including impression management, deception, ingratiation, and showing off. And who can blame them? After all, it pays off to impress your interviewers, even if such impressions are uncorrelated with future job performance and therefore an invalid signal of your talent or potential. It is perhaps for this reason - the fact that bragging and boasting are so pervasive during job interviews - that recruiters and hiring managers love to ask candidates about their greatest weakness - and there's no shortage of suggestions on how to answer this question. Yet few guidelines take into account the vast amount of academic research on impression management and deception, which is no doubt critical to enabling candidates to pick the right answer and craft their message in the most effective way. To this end, here are a few points to consider before you decide on how to answer "your biggest weakness" question:

1. Act surprised:Regardless of the quality of your response, it will be stronger if it doesn't seem rehearsed. Inevitably, this requires some acting, since you probably already expect interviewers to ask you this question. However, the more prepared you seem, the less credit they will be able to take for asking the question (which equates to making them feel less competent), and the less truthful your answer will seem. In line, research shows that both verbal and non-verbal communication that seems authentic is generally linked to more positive perceptions of personal attributes, including job potential. Therefore, your ability to pretend that you are thinking on the spot - or, even better, that you have been put on the spot - and have been forced to sincerely report on your biggest weaknesses, is likely to make a better impact on your interviewers than seeming prepared or scripted would. For the same reason, you should avoid common cliches.

2. Avoid common cliches:There's clearly a logic to most of the popular suggestions for answering the "what is your greatest weakness" question. For example, "I'm too much of a perfectionist" and "I'm too self-critical" represent attempts to mask positive and sought-after traits (perfectionism and self-awareness) as defects. The desired effect here - assuming fake modesty works - is to even make your defects seem impressive, for they are not even common as virtues. On the other hand, answers such as "I have little tolerance for selfish people" or "I don't enjoy working on projects that are not aligned with my personal interests or values" are somewhat more risqué, but hardly make you stand out (the majority of people in the world, including the interviewers, feel the same way). Then there is the worst category of answers, such as "I'm too honest" or "I care too much about others", which signal an inability to fake honesty, let alone be honest, or understand the actual question. In any event it is safe to assume that being original is as important as seeming honest and self-critical, and you are more likely to achieve this if you don't recycle the common cliches.

3. Avoid being brutally honest:Whether you lack self-awareness or not, there are few reasons for telling interviewers exactly what you think about your greatest weaknesses - and, in any event, that is not what interviewers are interested in finding out. Rather, they want to evaluate your ability to portray a believable degree of fake modesty, ideally with some degree of self-awareness, while you are still selling yourself for the job. Note that if interviewers like you, the last thing they will want is that you "hang yourself" by providing them with a ruthless self-catalogue of flaws. You don't do it on a first date, unless you want it to be your last date - so why do it on a job interview? It is probably even better to say "I have no weaknesses" (which is a terrible response), than to go over the real list of actual weaknesses people would mention if they were not just honest with themselves, but also the interviewers: e.g., I tend to dislike my bosses; I've never been too interested in work; I tend to dislike many of my colleagues; if there's a way to do things with minimum effort I usually will; I' not a morning person (or an evening person); I'm usually grumpy during meetings; I can't deal with authority; I generally see work as a burden and wouldn't do it if I could avoid it. And if you think these statements are not emblematic of what the average person really thinks about their job, manager, or careers, then just google "my boss is", "my job is", or "my career is" to find out. To be sure, we shouldn't blame people for being in jobs or careers they dislike, or working for someone they despise - but such realities would no doubt be deemed part of an applicant's weakness during a job interview if they were mentioned (and they are a far cry from the rosy picture applicants actually report when asked about those very feelings).  

4. What you should actually say:First, you will probably get bonus points for highlighting the things your interviewers already identified as weaknesses. And even if you are a strong candidate, they will almost certainly have spotted some gaps or flaws in your CV and background. Why is this a smart strategy? Because it demonstrates self-awareness - the ability to know how other people see you (yes, self-awareness is really about other-awareness) - and because you are in effect reassuring interviewers that there's probably no other obvious weaknesses they are missing out. Plus they will feel good about having guessed or identified your flaws, and having given you a killer question that made you confess them. In essence, this strategy makes them look good and feel good about themselves, without weakening you beyond what they thought... and arguably strengthening you because you are aware and honest about it. In contrast, failure to mention the things that they perceive as your weaknesses will make them suspicious that you are trying to hide them (this equates to dishonesty), or that you lack self-awareness. As confirmation bias research shows, people are generally interested in attending to events that support their prejudices and preconceptions, so you should just give interviewers what they want. Just like all other humans, most interviewers have a stronger need to protect their beliefs and misconceptions, than to accurately judge facts and reality. Second, use this instance to highlight the distinctive elements of your character and style. When identifying the core ingredients of your personality, you will inevitably find that all of your natural strengths can be weaknesses in other contexts. For instance, if you are introverted rather than extroverted, it is obvious that you are not naturally wired to connecting with new acquaintances, or that highly sociable or "extroverted" environments may seem taxing to you. By the same token, extroverted people who function well in such settings will find it harder to concentrate while working alone or pay attention to details. The same applies to any personality trait, so you can tell interviewers what you are naturally like by pointing out the things you don't like, or where your natural strengths are actually more of a liability. This will not only reveal truthful personal information, it will also help them understand how best to deploy your talents. Third, whatever weakness you report, explain how you are planning to mitigate it - or, even better, what you have been doing to self-coach it and contain it. We all have flaws and limitations, but it's our ability to keep them in check that determines our true potential.

This article is contributed by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Psychology at UCL and Columbia University, and the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup

* This content was first published to Forbes.com on October 30th, 2018.