Asking About a Person’s Weaknesses

Austrian entrepreneur Hermann Hauser, in an interview in yesterday's FT, was asked about his three worst features. His answer: "I am impatient, I don't suffer fools gladly, and I am too demanding."

I've seen impatience cited as a weakness in several interviews with big-ego execs. What a cop-out. Though it's not as bad as when someone's self-critical moment comes via a line like, "I work too hard on the weekends."

When attemping to rely on a person's self-knowledge — a treacherous affair — stick to asking about the person's top strengths.

If, however, you're keen on asking a question that prompts a darker reflection, don't ask explicitly about weaknesses. Ask instead, "What keeps you up at 2 AM?"

You won't get an honest answer there, either, but, in my experience, you get a bit closer.

9 Responses to Asking About a Person’s Weaknesses

  1. Jackie D says:

    Not suffering fools gladly is, to me, the answer that screams egotism. “Because, you see, there are just so many fools that a genius like me has to deal with!”

    I like the question, “What do you do that causes the most upset to those close to you?” Because I’m up at 2AM thinking about whether or not I’ll ever be a mom, but my refusal to open up makes my best friend cry.

  2. Krishna says:

    One with Jackie…

    The fact of not having had the weekly dose of sex from your partner could keep you up at 2.00 am, but the realization that your impulsive cynicism flowing directly from your job as a private equity investor (fine-combing financial projections and biz plans pitched by entrepreneurs reducing it to just a fifth of what is being stated) spilling over to your routine social transactions, could bug you each time you insincerely say “hello” to a potential friend-for-life.

  3. Jude says:

    Since I’ve been prepping for job interviews and I had a pathetic response to “What’s your greatest weakness?” at an interview a couple of months ago, I worked out a good response for that one. My greatest weakness is that I tend to take on enormous, open-ended projects which take years to complete. While I eventually finish them, and I learn a lot in the process, they do take awhile. I thought of two examples–scanning over 8000 slides and uploading them to Flickr, with annotations (I’m almost half-done after 3 years of work); and creating a choir music database, which took about 6 months to finish even though I directed volunteers in making it. During my last phone interview, even though I wasn’t asked the “greatest weakness” question, I was asked to give an example of a project I worked on that showed my attention to detail, and I was able to work both of those projects into the conversation. I received a call-back for a face-to-face interview, so figuring out my greatest weaknesses didn’t hurt. link to flickr.com

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    You learn a lot about someone based on their answer to the weaknesses question–you learn whether or not they’re willing to be honest, and whether or not they’re self aware.

    As for me, my greatest weakness is that I have a too-strong desire to be likeable. I have a hard time being a hardass, even when sometimes that is what’s called for. That’s one of the reasons why you’ll always find me partnered with a hardass who claims not to be a people person–we complement each other.

    Not much keeps me awake at night. If I had to make something up, I’d have to choose between a) the knowledge that I might never become filthy rich, and b) the worry that my wife is right and that I’m too easygoing with the kids.

  5. Scott Young says:

    I agree with Chris, I think the question “what are your weaknesses?” is less a question probing for an actual answer, and more a bullshit detection to see how honest the person is being in the interview.

    Giving cop-out answers like, working too hard, perfectionism, or in this case, impatience, may indicate a lack of self-awareness. Or, more likely, it simply indicates that the person is deliberately trying to obfuscate their weaknesses in the interview setting.

    That said, I think it’s likely a poor question to ask since an experienced interviewee can easily pick seemingly significant sounding weaknesses that are irrelevant in the context of the particular job. The best I’ve heard, “I’m lousy at math” during an interview for a sales position–perfect.

  6. DaveJ says:

    Adding to Scott’s point, without further qualification it’s a dumb question. “What is your greatest weakness that will affect your ability to perform in this job?” is much more focused, but also highlights that the question may be inappropriate. In another sense, the question is a test of how good the respondent is at “spin.”

  7. My little theory about the ‘What is your greatest weakness’ question is that it is to test how good are you at bullshitting – and it is asked mostly by HR persons who are very good at that game and who like other people who are similar to them.

  8. Kevin Cassidy says:

    The weakness question in an job interview is different from a published interview. Ask yourself this question: what does this guy gain from giving a deep, heartfelt, honest answer? He is in business and has rivals, competitors, possibly even enemies. He will have people looking to get something from him that will have read this interview. What does he gain by giving an honest answer? He is signaling.

    I think you should ask these questions personally, and be open with people you can trust, but to an international publication? Why?

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