Who doesn’t hate that interview question? “What’s your greatest weakness?” UGH. I have both been interviewed and been an interviewer. In many ways, I disliked the question even more as an interviewer. The response was usually guaranteed to be a mix of saccharine self-praise and artificial humility. Basically, “well, I’m not really bad at anything, but I guess perfectionism is my weakness…”
In years of working, studying, giving performance reviews, getting performance reviews, interviewing and having tough customer conversations, I’ve observed that that cliched answer is SO close to correct. Our greatest strengths are usually our greatest weaknesses. But the problem is how far we go in understanding how those strengths are our weaknesses, how we address them, and how we manage our weaknesses without losing our strengths.
How often are we rewarded when we’re honest about our weaknesses? It depends on the person and the situation. As a young leader many years ago, I took my job very seriously, but I knew that my youth made it hard for certain employees to accept my coaching. I was a young, minority woman, working with several older or peer-age employees – and I’d been told that my RBF was intense. To offset my natural intensity, I would add levity to most interaction. I would smile, joke, try to lighten the mood. Honestly, that’s who I am…when things are hardest, I like to defuse the tension with humor. You can imagine that my first performance review in that role could be paraphrased as follows: “you have a lot of energy, you’re getting a lot done, but there are some people who don’t think you take your job seriously enough.”
So, model employee that I was, I listened and buckled down. I tried really hard to fit the mold of the serious, hard-charging business woman. A whole year of disrupting myself.
Can you guess what happened one year later? “You’re doing a good job, but you’re not as effective as you were last year, and people sure wish you would lighten up.” No kidding. I was lucky to have a great boss at the time, so I looked at him silently for about a minute, and said, “you’re kidding, right? Do you remember what you told me last year?” He had the grace and courage to look sheepish. He hadn’t course corrected me over the year because I was still getting things done, but when he checked with folks around appraisal time, the truth would out. When we spent some time talking about what it really meant to be authentic, I realized then was that the year of forcing myself to be “textbook” was exhausting, challenging, and actually eroded my strengths – that I was relatable balanced with a strong focus on execution.
Today we hear and read a lot about authenticity. We’re told to acknowledge our humanity in ways that were inconceivable when I had my first REAL job in (date withheld for my own vanity). And the fact is, that’s right. We are human and we can’t be perfect, so we shouldn’t expect to get everything right all the time, but rather be aware of what we’re likely to get “wrong” so that we can offset those risks either on our own, or with our teams.
Next time, I’m going to talk about the flip side of this coin. The idea that if you want to get better, it’s not going to feel better – at least for a while. Growth through discomfort is the jelly to authenticity’s peanut butter.
Now as individuals, we have to ensure that our organizations are also espousing that principle… that to be the best entities, teams must embrace strengths, leverage them, and recognize that they come with a corresponding weakness. And in fact, that vulnerability is – in its own unique way – our strength.
What’s your organizational strength? Is it also your weakness? How are you turning that into clear value for your customers or clients? Can you use help turning your vulnerability into your success? Let’s talk!