There are few interview questions that are more legendary than the weaknesses question. Generations of candidates hear this question and start to sweat. One thing is for sure: applicants do not give honest answers. Then again, recruiters do not expect them to. This inevitably raises the question: So then, what are the interviewers looking for?
The “weaknesses question” is a true classic and is available in various forms: it’s used to contrast strengths, to identify “development areas”, from the perspective of friends, and in its purist form. If we are to believe the advocates of this question, applicants must have very realistic self-images. That is the theory. In practice though, the urge for social desirability has twisted this noble goal into the absurd. From the candidate’s perspective, this question is a nightmare.
In order to figure out the best way to answer this question, candidates turn to Google, instantly finding 6.1 million results. It quickly becomes clear that not only applicants rack their brains trying to answer this question. Many application consultants have tips and tricks. This question has been featured in every major print media.
From a diagnostic point of view, the question arises: What does this question actually measure then, if not self-image or weaknesses? We have collected 6 hypotheses that try and answer this question.
Hypothesis 1. Cognitive Skills
A first hypothesis is that it is simply a banal intelligence test with the aim to determine whether applicants possess a minimum level of intelligence, common sense really, not to provide answers like: “My greatest weaknesses are a fear of squirrels, a drinking problem and a penchant for physical violence.” It’s mostly used to figure out if the candidate still has all their marbles. Any standard answer will pass the test.
Hypothesis 2. Emotional Intelligence
In a fit of intellectual fancy, Mr. Goleman postulated that intelligence only accounts for 25% of the variance in relation to professional performance. “Emotional intelligence” is responsible for the remaining 75%. Though he did not invent the construct, nor really research this theory (which does not inspire confidence in his conclusions), he did make it popular. If this construct is tested by the weaknesses question, then emotionally intelligent people are able to better encapsulate what the recruiter does and doesn’t want to hear. Nevertheless, the separation of this field from that of Impression Management appears to be extremely difficult and would have to be the topic of another article.
Hypothesis 3. Motivation
A more realistic hypothesis is that the weaknesses question is used to detect the motivation of an applicant. The theorem: Since the weaknesses question is considered an interview “classic”, every candidate should expect, and therefore, have prepared for it. The criterion: the most motivated candidates are the ones who have prepared an original and thoughtful answer.
Hypothesis 4. Personality
The friends version of the question could be used to determine the candidates’ personality. It could be looking for the candidate to expose their “inner self”. Applicants for an accounting firm may say that obsessiveness if their weakness, which can be classified as being a conscientious person.
Hypothesis 5. Organizational Fit
A more daring hypothesis is that the weaknesses question is used to determine the candidate’s personal fit within the company. Some very competitive companies may expect the response to include some degree of “perfectionism”. In the end, both the candidate and company need to figure out if the company culture is one that compliments the applicant, or if it clashes.
Hypothesis 6. Learn about Candidates’ Weaknesses
For practical purposes, this question can be very useful for some specific professional fields. It helps recruiters get a better overall picture of the candidate. From the candidates’ point of view, this question is a double-edged sword. Like the dragon slayer in an old German legend, the applicants feel forced to reveal their weaknesses. While they may impress the employer with their self-awareness, honesty or strategy to overcome their difficulty, they also become vulnerable. They are unsure if this information will come back to bite them. The recruiter can easily say, “well you yourself said that…” as a reason for not hiring them.
Is it worth preparing for applicants?
Is it worth preparing for? No explicit research has been done to determine the significance of the weaknesses question. However, a study performed by Nicolas Roulin and his colleagues gained a little insight. They examined if a unique response effected a candidates evaluation, as compared to a standard response. The result: applicants who had prepared a unique response were rated higher than candidates with a standard response. An interesting finding was that the effect is stronger in places that are not associated with creativity (ex. accounting) when compared with creative professions (ex. marketing). This is interpreted to mean that it is not expected of non-creative occupations to be creative in answering this question. Indirectly, this provides some supporting evidence for the personality test hypothesis.
Conclusion: For applicants, it is worth preparing a unique answer. For recruiters, they should rephrase the question in accordance with what they hope to learn from it.