It is the cringiest moment of any interview process, when the recruiter asks what the candidate’s weaknesses are. Well, the candidate replies, sitting up, I’m sometimes so focused that I forget to eat lunch/so in command of the detail that I struggle to delegate/so full of amazing ideas that my staff find it difficult to keep up, etc etc etc.
No one is fooled by a flimsy attempt to dress up a strength as a weakness and, besides, the joke's on them - every strength is a weakness, under certain circumstances.
According to research by psychometric profiling firm Hogan Assessments, there are 11 personality traits that are associated with career derailment, which itself is usually associated with management failure. To read them, you’d assume you were looking at a list of strengths - and you’d be right. And wrong.
Pros: You can be "inspiring, courageous and confident"
Cons: Bold leaders often hog the credit while failing to take accountability for their mistakes.
Pros: Skepticism is a vaccine against both groupthink and office politics.
Cons: It can also cause office politics, because skeptical leaders frequently have trust issues.
Pros: Creative. Often good communicators.
Cons: They can overcomplicate simple problems and get easily distracted from essential but mundane tasks.
Pros: Excitable leaders bring energy and a can-do spirit, which can break through organisational inertia.
Cons: Over-emotional, with a short attention span, especially if their ideas don’t work out straight away. Generally better for puppies than managers.
Pros: Thoughtful, and unlikely to get carried away.
Cons: According to Hogan, reserved leaders have a nasty habit of locking themselves away to "think" when times get stressful, and can lack sympathy for subordinates’ problems.
Pros: Great attention to detail, usually very competent...
Cons: ...except at delegation. Diligent leaders’ perfectionism can easily turn into micromanagement and poor prioritisation.
Pros: Mischievous people are typically great under pressure and comfortable with taking risks.
Cons: Sometimes it’s possible to be too great at taking risks (subprime mortgages anyone?). And mischievous leaders can lack consideration for colleagues.
Pros: Unlikely to make a catastrophic error...
Cons: ...because they’re terrified of taking risks. Hogan says they can shy away from making changes, leading subordinates to work around them if they want to accomplish anything.
Pros: Relaxed and likeable, they can help to create psychological safety and bring the best out of people in otherwise high pressure environments.
Cons: Not generally very productive when facing real challenges, and prone to deflecting criticism.
Pros: Like their mischievous peers, colourful leaders thrive under pressure and can be very charismatic and inspirational...
Cons: ...which can hide being poorly organised, indecisive, erratic glory-hunters.
Pros: Reliable and loyal.
Cons: Over-reliant on team members, lacking initiative or resourcefulness; often cloyingly sycophantic towards superiors.
The key insight here, according to Hogan’s CEO Scott Gregory, is that any strength can become a damaging weakness if you’re not careful, because they can get in the way of managing relationships effectively.
The question we might have, if we see a little of ourselves in the list of career-ending personality traits, is what can we do about it.
"For adults, personality is quite stable - changes occur, but they tend to be small. But we can learn new behaviours that modify our performance, and we can do that without trying to change our personalities, which would be a very difficult task at best," says Gregory.
He gives an example of an introverted person who’s naturally uncomfortable meeting new people, but whose job requires them to develop a network of industry contacts. "You could learn to introduce yourself to people more confidently, openly share things about yourself and proactively communicate - all things that may not come naturally to you - without attempting to change your introverted personality characteristic."
Gregory unsurprisingly suggests using personality assessments to figure out where your blind spots are, and attempting to hire staff with complementary characters to mitigate your weaknesses.
But it’s important not to get too fixated on what we’re good or bad at, because doing so deters us from self-improvement (‘I’ll never be good at that, so what’s the point?’) and doesn’t take into account the importance of context.
"What may be a weakness for one role can be a strength in another. Suppose, for example, you are naturally tactical thinking, risk-averse, and highly detail-oriented. That may not be the best set of characteristics for a strategic marketing role. On the other hand, that set of characteristics might be great for a project management or audit role. So context is everything when you are talking about strengths and weaknesses," says Gregory.
As with most management problems, the best thing you can do is to be aware - of yourself, your colleagues and your context. That way, neither you nor your business will fall victim to the best (or the worst) of your personality.
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