I used to work for a guy who started every job interview with “So, what are you good at?” Then, later on, he’d asked, “Okay, now tell me what you’re not so good at.”

When I was in college, the job placement office told us we had to have an answer for that question. I assume everybody who coaches job candidates does the same. Which is why few candidates were ever surprised by the question.

What’s surprising was how bad their answers were.

For example:

  • “Well, some people say I take my work too seriously. I’m sort of a workaholic.”
  • “I’ve been told that I’m too hard on myself. I set my expectations too high.”
  • “I’m a little too impatient.”

These are, of course, examples of dressing up a strength as a weakness, which is manipulative and unhelpful. Sharp interviewers are looking for evidence of two things when they ask the “What are your weaknesses” question:

Candor. Only phonies pretend they have no weaknesses. If they lie about that, what else will they lie about?

Confidence. People who know their strengths have the self-assurance to admit a weakness.

I once had a guy applying for a senior executive position tell me, “I’m very good at overseeing high-level employees but not very effective with low-level employees.” When I pushed him about why he was ineffective, he said he knew exactly which levers to pull to motivate high-level employees but not low-level ones.

I could see it bothered him a little. He wanted to be better at understanding the rank and file. Admitting this weakness made him seem human to me. Since his job would be to oversee high-level employees, his weakness wouldn’t hurt him. Admitting it gave him credibility in my eyes.

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