Updated: Feb 3, 2019
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got memories of embarrassingly cringe-worthy moments in your work history that still make you want to crawl under a rock and hide. For me, one of those memories that replays over and over again in my mind happened in a job interview when I was fresh out of graduate school.
The position would have allowed me to teach, train, and travel.
I really wanted it.
I was interviewed by a panel of six people who already worked on the team. They asked tough questions, but I was prepared. I communicated well and I felt great about how the interview went.
Then, in a moment I was not expecting towards the end of the interview, one of the interviewers who hadn’t asked any questions up to that point said,
“LeAnne, would you consider yourself to be a creative person?”
He had figured me out. I was an imposter.
My mind was spinning, trying to come up with a plan to get out of discussing one of my biggest areas of insecurity. I’m thinking….
They want a creative person?!? The job didn’t seem like it required a creative person?!? But they wouldn’t have asked me this if they didn’t need a creative person?!?
I MUST BE A CREATIVE PERSON!!
So, in the next few painful moments, I tried to convince both the panel AND myself that I was, in fact, a creative person.
“Ummm yes. I think I can be creative when I need to be.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt the tension build in the room-tension that existed because I wasn’t confident enough in my strengths to acknowledge my weaknesses. Needless to say, they didn’t buy it.
I didn’t buy it either.
Looking back, I’m confident that the way I answered all their previous questions had already told them I wasn’t a naturally creative person. Perhaps he was asking because the person filling the role really needed to be creative, but I’m not convinced that was it. I think he asked in order to see how I would respond to being called out about my vulnerabilities.
And I failed.
Truth was that I wanted to be all the things I thought they wanted me to be. I was young and afraid that telling them I wasn’t creative would disqualify me from the search.
I share that story with my almost 800 students every semester when I teach interviewing. They always laugh as I describe the horror I feel thinking about the way those interviewers looked at me when I straight-up lied to them. I tell my students that this story should serve as a reminder to them, that while it’s difficult to share our vulnerabilities with others, especially when we feel something big is on the line, it’s always worth it.
I once talked with a CEO who told me that when he interviews candidates, he places a lot of emphasis on how they answer the weaknesses question, because he said, “it tells me whether they are humble and teachable.”
But if we’re honest with ourselves, talking about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses in a job interview feels like navigating land mines. How are we to know which weaknesses will trigger negative responses in our interviewer’s mind? How are we to be honest about our limitations and still make a great first impression?
The good news is that there are practical things you can start today that will help prepare you to discuss
your weaknesses in a fruitful and impressive way. First, we've got to analyze ourselves a bit.
What are your Weaknesses?
At ROI Talent Development, we teach our clients that weaknesses typically fall into two major categories:
What doesn’t come naturally
What comes a little too naturally
As you read through the descriptions below, try to think of specific examples from your own life that might fall within these categories. If you struggle to think of examples, ask a trusted supervisor or colleague to give you some insight.
1. What Doesn’t Come Naturally?
This category would include things we can non-talents. If you’re familiar with CliftonStrengths, you can also call these your lesser talents. In short, these are talents and strengths that you don’t possess.
For example, here’s a list of a few things that don’t come naturally to me:
Idea generation; thinking creatively or “outside of the box”
Working a crowd or quickly building a strong rapport with strangers
Going with the flow; adapting on the spot
Simply put, if a job requires those talents and skills on a regular basis, it’s not one in which I will likely thrive and flourish in the long run. Can I do the job? Maybe? But definitely not with ease, excellence, and enjoyment.
The reason these things don’t come naturally to me is because my talents and strengths lie in other areas. For example, the reason that “going with the flow” doesn’t come naturally to me is because I intuitively think about ways to maximize efficiency by creating routine, order, and structure, and ultimately, predictability. That is precisely why I need to work with others who are strong in the areas where I am weak.
Perhaps some of your weaknesses lie in areas of non-talent, but often our greatest weaknesses (and the ones that get us into the most trouble) lie in this second category.
2. What Comes a Little Too Naturally?
This category would include unproductive or self-centered ways that you use your top talents and strengths. This category also includes the ways in which you overemphasize your strengths when a task really demands a different approach.
For example, here’s a short list of things that come a little too naturally for me and can get me into trouble:
Trying to customize everything; neglecting the needs of the group because of a focus on the needs of the individuals in the group
Burning the candle at both ends; taking on too much so that I’m not effective at anything; running my team into the ground because of my unrealistic pace of production
Imposing too much structure and routine, thus snuffing out creativity and innovation
These examples can serve to remind us that our naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, if used unproductively or selfishly, can get in the way of accomplishing important goals in our workplaces.
Learn to Talk About Your Weaknesses
Whether we’re in a job interview, a leadership role, or an interpersonal relationship, it’s important we get comfortable acknowledging and discussing our limitations.
When we are confident in who we are and what comes naturally to us, we understand the unique value we bring to our relationships and organizations.
This should not puff us up.
This should make us feel more responsible and accountable to use those talents and strengths in service to others. It should free us to speak candidly about the areas in which we are lacking skill, talent, or strength.
Looking back, here’s how I wish I would have answered that interview question all those years ago:
“LeAnne, would you consider yourself to be a creative person?”
“No, I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person. If I’m tasked with thinking creatively or if the project or initiative requires an “out-of-the-box approach,” I will struggle to work efficiently. That being said, when a project calls for creativity, I will work to strategically partner with others stronger in that area so that once we’ve collaborated over an idea, I can use my strengths to make it happen. While I am not typically the one to generate new ideas, I am the one who intuitively knows if the idea will work, possible risks associated with the idea, or how to implement the idea in a way that makes sense for all parties involved.”
Would this have meant I landed the job? I’ll never know. But, had I communicated with that kind of vulnerability, I would have at least demonstrated self-awareness and an ability to see the ways in which I need the strengths of others in my areas of weakness.
I wish someone had told me back then that interviewers are people too, and that they don’t really expect me to be all things to all people. In fact, what they really wanted is for me to be self-aware and self-reflexive, acknowledging the specific ways I could bring value to the team while being honest about my weaknesses.
Build on your Strengths and Manage Around Your Weaknesses
I recently met up with an individual to discuss her CliftonStrengths results. As we talked, she began making connections between her Top 5 and her previous successes and challenges. Her strengths explained a lot of her frustrations, her motivations, and her tendencies in the workplace, and she was really encouraged to discover the ways in which she is truly unique in comparison to others.
But the most powerful moment came when she paused and said, in almost a whisper:
“Can I really live like this?”
“Like what?” I replied.
“Can I really give myself permission to not be great at all this other stuff?”
The reality is that we live in a weakness-obsessed culture. As a result, it feels almost wrong to focus on our strengths and let go of the guilt we feel for not being awesome at everything.
It’s important to remember that adopting a strengths-based approach doesn’t mean we ignore our weaknesses.
It means that we give ourselves permission to not be great at all the other stuff.
Make a list of things that don’t come naturally to you. Your non-talents. If you’re having a hard time thinking of specifics, ask a trusted colleague or supervisor for insight. He/she has likely noticed patterns that you haven’t. This takes guts, but it’s worth it to get the feedback.
Make a list of things that come a little too naturally for you. What are specific ways you might over-use your strengths, use them in unproductive or selfish ways, or fail to care for others in light of your strengths?
Practice communicating about these weaknesses. As you get more comfortable, remember to place emphasis on HOW you manage around your weaknesses. When faced with a weakness, do you delegate to others, partner with those who have complementary strengths, or leverage another strength to produce a desired outcome?
Start looking for opportunities to communicate about your weaknesses with self-awareness and confidence. You don’t need to be all things to all people to be incredibly valuable in your workplace.
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