The Worst Interview Question Ever

Jun 12, 2014

“What is your greatest weakness?” is the worst interview question, ever.

Here’s why you should be asking candidates about their greatest strength. 

What is your greatest weakness? If there was such a thing as a universally despised interview question, this would top the list. Sell me this pencil is a close second.

Job candidates hate this question because it puts them in an impossible situation. On the one hand, they could actually admit their greatest weakness. But, would you hire someone who told you that they were unorganized or tended to butt heads with his or her coworkers? On the other hand, he or she could lie and spin a strength. Sometimes I’m too hardworking. Of course you are. The last time I was interviewing for jobs, I mastered the art of cheeky avoidance. I possess super-human strength, but only when I’m angry.

The interviewers, for their part, hate this question because it’s cliché, and because they know it will be met with a B.S. answer, no matter how cleverly they ask. My favorite example is, tell me why, in five years, I have to fire you. My favorite answer? Economic downturn.

And, even if we managed to get a completely honest answer, would it even matter? The answer is no, for three reasons:

  1. First, they probably don’t know the answer. A 2006 analysis of 360-degree ratings showed strong a correlation between peer and supervisor ratings, but there was only a modest correlation between self-supervisor and self-peer ratings. In other words, most people have no idea how the rest of the world sees them. As one of my colleagues often puts it, everyone thinks they are smart, funny, and great in bed, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
  2. Next, anyone with the level of self-awareness it takes to actually pinpoint their greatest weakness (and the cajones to tell you) likely also possesses the presence of mind to put mechanisms in place to prevent that weakness from impacting his or her performance. For example, someone who knows that he or she tends to procrastinate (like me) will set hard deadlines for him or herself and use scheduling and productivity apps to keep them on track.
  3. Finally, most of your hires won’t fail because of their greatest weakness. Most of them will fail because they overplay their greatest strength. Here’s the science: a 2009 study of personality information from 126 managers and performance ratings from 1,500 of their coworkers showed that, as levels of certain strengths increased past a certain point, their effectiveness decreased. Anyone who has been in the workforce long has seen how this plays out. An ambitious new employee on your sales team turns cutthroat under the pressure to meet his or her numbers, and starts competing with members of his or her own team. Or, a detail-oriented accounting manager turns into a micro-manager.

I’m certainly not saying that weaknesses don’t impact our performance — they do. But weaknesses are easy to spot, and easy to compensate or correct. Because overused strengths are born in our blind spots, they can be hard to spot until they’ve already had a devastating effect.

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