All Weaknesses are Strengths

If we want to address unconscious bias in hiring, we need to start with the way we interview and the meaningless questions we ask.

There are many things interviews get wrong. I dislike the strengths/weaknesses question because it (like many similar questions) encourages play-acting. It isn’t a good way to get insight on the candidate (or encourage open communication) but instead tests their ability to communicate information in a form that you (the interviewer) likes.

All strengths are weaknesses and all weaknesses are strengths to someone. Depending on how much the person likes you, they may find no fault in your presumed strengths or weaknesses. Unconscious bias invades every part of the screening, selection and interview process.

Observe and experiment, don’t guess

As an interviewer there is only one way to find out someone’s limitations: put them in the working environment and see how they do. We should all stop asking questions which encourage emotional disqualification.

I meet many people who say “I always hire on ‘feel’ and haven’t had any problems”. I’m interested in the great people you didn’t hire because they didn’t ‘feel’ right.

If we want to build truly diverse, successful teams we need to stop hiring on feel and start hiring people who are judged purely on their ability to accomplish objectives.

As a job seeker, if you are faced with this question I would attempt to use it as a way to describe your mindset and approach rather than as a chance to talk about how amazing (or horrible) you are.

You can answer any question in an interview in a way that gives you more insight on the company and communicates who you are. You can subtly lead the dance or at least watch out for signs that give away the style and approach of the interviewer.

How to answer the Strengths question

Talk about those things that are easy for you with context — “a strength for me is working with independence with an objective and being allowed to experiment as I meet timelines. Important to me as part of this is a management team that ‘keeps track’ of me in case I start to get off track.”

You might be then pressed by the interviewer to give something specific like “communication”, etc. I would respond with “often times I’ve found that my strengths or the things I do well depend on the situation and problem I’m faced with. In certain situations that I know well most people can likely communicate well. In another situation it may be a disaster.” Immediately move on to another example starting with “as an example, I worked well on a recent project… Etc…”

Real life examples of things you did well and the conditions around it mean more than keyword strengths.

How to answer the Weaknesses question

Talk about those things that you have struggled with and are working on improving. If you do have any true “weaknesses” you don’t realise it. If you did, you would be working on them.

Examples and situations are the best way to answer this kind of question. The interviewer response will give good insight into the working dynamics in the company.

“I often times struggle in roles that are too structured where I’m expected to do things ‘because’ rather than a willingness to explain the logic and an openness to consider changing the process.” Or “I often struggle in environments that are too open. I’m uncomfortable when people share too much. I just want to do my job and go home.”

Why is this a better way to answer?

If you can interview in this manner, you will align better with the hiring team on who you are and what you want.

You should also see more situations where the companies want to hire you but you have doubts about your comfort in the environment.

The most valuable information from an interview is reactions to the information you share rather than what people actually say. During your next interview, experiment with this. Answer a question with a description of your working style: “I’m interested in working with <XYZ> because I’ve seen the company advocates for <ABC>. It’s important to me that a company stands for something I believe in.”

Watch how the interviewers respond while you speak. Their reactions, appearances, tone of voice and manner will mean more than the words they say.

I originally posted a version of this as an answer on Quora.

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