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As someone who is now finding himself on the other end of the interview table, I'm wondering how useful these questions are from an employer's perspective. Some of my coworkers think they're good because you can see "how they respond," but I'm not convinced it tells you anything useful, for several reasons:

  • It's not a very comfortable question and can lead people to twist their answers, even if not on purpose
  • People may not fully know their greatest strengths or weaknesses (i.e. judge them by their peers)
  • Explaining what a strength is isn't as good as showing it
  • I still don't know any more about the candidate afterwards

The rationale of my coworkers is that it can help weed out people that give ridiculous responses, like one guy that said his greatest strength was "his intellect" or people that try to turn the weakness question into a strength like "I work too hard." But I think there's more effective ways to determine such things. If you want to see if someone's smart, ask them technical questions. If you want to see if someone is productive, look at their work history. If you want to see how someone reacts under stress or change, ask them how they've dealt with it and ask for concrete examples.

What are people's thoughts on these questions, from the perspective of an interviewer? What do they really tell you about a candidate, and what are better alternatives? How do I convince my colleagues of this?

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Worst I've been asked was what are my 3 greatest strengths & weaknesses. I could easily come up with 2 for either that didn't make me look like a shoddy employee, wasn't easy to come up with the third for either. –  Slokun Oct 7 '10 at 15:00
    
@Slokun: Had the same experience. I froze for a minute before stammering something out. I think they were all related anyways. –  Josh K Oct 7 '10 at 15:06
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"My greatest weakness is that useless canned interview questions make me break out in hives. You wouldn't happen to have any calamine lotion, would you?" –  BlairHippo Oct 7 '10 at 15:19
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I'm thinking that the next time I'm asked this question, I'm just going for broke: "I'm too awesome. My intellect shines so brightly that it blinds nearby developers. My dev skills are so great that fellow employees quit in shame. So great is my sexual prowess that any dev in the room will rip off their clothes and throw themselves at me. It's a personality flaw that I'm working on." –  Fishtoaster Oct 7 '10 at 15:37
    
+1 simply for the last of your four points. –  David Thornley Oct 7 '10 at 21:16

11 Answers 11

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Not very.

  • Any question for which a good percentage of candidates will have a canned response is of limited value, since you're often not getting the real them. Everyone and their cousin has heard of "what is your greatest weakness."
  • The answer encourages lying: honest people will describe a fault and end up looking bad, while less honest people will spin a strength as a fault and look good.
  • The question is so dated that, in my opinion, it reflects poorly on your company to ask it.
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The "greatest weakness" question is looking for people who are JUST honest enough to list a bona-fide weakness while withholding anything truly worrisome. Doesn't seem like a skillset relevant to most technical positions. –  BlairHippo Oct 7 '10 at 15:17
    
totally agreed. +1 –  GrandmasterB Oct 7 '10 at 18:18
    
This answer encourages lying as has been said, so I don't think it's a good question to ask. No one is going to list their greatest weakness (if the have even bothered to rank them) as in many cases admitting that could be a deal breaker. They are going to list lesser weaknesses at best, and at worst they will make one up or try to turn a strength into a weakness. This is like asking the chicken to stretch out its neck on the chopping block or something so you can kill it.... Plus sometimes you just don't know your "greatest" weakness. I certainly haven't ranked mine.... –  Cervo May 26 '11 at 13:20

I will speak from a position of an interviewee. When I prepare for an interview, I always take time to think about these questions. "Your strengths" question may be easier to answer, because all of us are proud of our own accomplishments and can talk about them. In an interview people will almost always try to over-glorify their accomplishments to try to look better. When it comes to "your weaknesses" question, it is very hard to answer it completely honestly and say something constructive and negative about yourself. Either, an interviewee will pick a weakness that's pretty minor, and will not give an interviewer any useful information or try to turn a weakness into a "strength". For example, "I think my weakness is that I tend to overwork myself." Either way, all the weaknesses and strengths will become obvious during the probation period. That's what it's for - to see if the employee-employer relationship is mutually beneficial.

Previous employers may be a better source of information for these kind of questions. Ask for references and follow up.

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Previous employers often will not say something bad about a former employee due to fear of being sued. Often you just get the dates of employment and maybe a confirmation of salary. –  Cervo May 26 '11 at 13:15

In and amongst other questions I don't think it's bad, in and of itself. If you are looking for the "one question to rule them all" candidate, this one is not it. Ideally a candidate has some awareness of what happens during interviews and will have a good answer where they admit to an honest weakness that they have (NOTE: we ALL have weaknesses - somebody who claims NONE is a giant red flag) but also tells you what they're doing to address it.

Example: "I sometimes tend to obsess over getting every last bit of information up front before doing any development. In the past that has led to some slow project starts. Now I try to get some basic functionality sketched out first and then iteratively fill it in as I get feedback from the users."

You admitted a weakness (instead of "ready, aim, fire" you're more of a "ready, aim, aim, aim, just a little for data, aim, aim...") but recognize it and are taking steps to deal with it.

Remember - you are going to have to work with this person day-in and day-out for a long time. You will see them more than your own family. Whatever you can do to figure things out about them you should do.

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The value of that question seems obvious to me.

Someone that knows his strength and weaknesses will be a lot more efficient that the one that doesn't know what he can do well and what he shouldn't do (or improve)

In martial arts, this is one of the first things you have to learn. Because it determines how your attack and defense strategy will be.

I do think that it's the same in life in general, including daily work.

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In practice, though, it doesn't work too well. I think most people get hung up on "how big of a weakness should I admit to so that it looks like I'm answering honestly, but not honestly enough that it'll cost me the job?" –  Anna Lear Oct 7 '10 at 18:18
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Well, I think companies that use that trap doesn't deserve the honest candidate :) Only the dishonest ones. So all is ok :) –  user2567 Oct 7 '10 at 20:54
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How does the question distinguish between "someone that knows his strengths and weaknesses" and "someone that doesn't, but who has memorized appropriate answers to foolish interview questions"? –  Carson63000 Oct 7 '10 at 23:24
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When you interviewed hundred of developers, it's pretty esay to detect liars. That question is more useful than you think. –  user2567 Oct 8 '10 at 5:31
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I agree with this in concept. A person that is not aware of what they don't know is dangerous. However, I don't think this is the best question to determine that. –  g . Oct 8 '10 at 9:55

Behavioral interviews aren't necessarily a great thing either though. Here is a link to a blog post that while it is a over a couple of years old, it is worth mentioning on this subject to my mind.

Canned answers are what kill the effectiveness of the question, at least to my mind. Most people have looked up various answers to this and just picked one that seems like, "Yeah, I'm kinda, sorta, maybe a bit like that."


Validating how someone did something has a couple of points I'd note:

  • Sometimes a dumb thing is done that isn't likely to be repeated. When someone does royally screw up there may be alternatives that the person will take. For example, most adults would not touch a hot stove with their bare hand but a child may not understand the warning and will learn after getting a burn not to do that.

  • References are where I'd look into some things here. For example, if you want to see how someone handled a failed project, asking a former boss or co-worker may be better as an outsider may have a different take on things. However, some people may fake their references so this does carry a caution to my mind.

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I didn't quite realize that behavioral interviews were the alternative that I was suggesting, but I definitely see how they're a problem. You never have any way to validate an answer to "how did you handle this kind of situation?" –  Matt Olenik Oct 7 '10 at 19:20

I got this question a little while back (not for a programming job though) that I liked:

"What is the ideal/'golden standard' [profession]?", which was followed by "How do you compare to that?" and others.

It is very similar, but somewhat disassociates them describing themselves and describing the ideal (greatest weakness would be where there is the largest difference, strength: the greatest alignment).

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I think it's the best way to get dishonest answers. –  Alexey Aug 24 '13 at 18:22

I once had a job interview where the hiring person was a dev, and he asked me to cut some code in the language they needed, right then and there on the whiteboard. I did what he asked, he looked at it, nodded, and asked "Can you start tomorrow?"

Asking BS questions like "name your biggest strengths and weaknesses" is the most egregious waste of time ever invented by pseudo-intellectual MBA Human Resource specialists.

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I'm going though a personnal evaluation at the moment, and i'm in the middle of this very exercise. Only there's a twist; i have to ask colleagues and friends what my strengths/weaknesses are, and not look at the result before having compiled my own list

This is very interesting because it makes some discrespancies between what you think you are and what other perceives about you obvious.

"I think i'm a hard worker, and i'm very serious and ..."

"He's an obsessive control freak who programs so defensively his code is unreadable and ..."


In interviews, i think this may be a kind of low level sanity check. "Do you know the basics, did you prepare?" they seem to say. Or perhaps it's just that this question used to trip people, to shake them up.

But now the question is so widely known it's become useless; interviewers keep asking it out of habit because that's what they've learned. Interviewees keep trying to game it out of self-preservation...


Perhaps it could be updated; instead of "what's your weakness", ask "hey, if you could go back in time one year, what is the thing you'd like to change the most?"

Chances are, the interviewee will have a chance to talk about a moment when he didn't manage to reach his standards, but in a positive way: "well this didn't work out, so i'd... to have it succeed". The interviewer has an idea of what the interviewee didn't like, and the interviewee shows he did learn from a mistake.

The same could be done with the strengths: "if you had to showcase one thing you did during last year, what would it be?"

what do you think? Does it keep the goal of the original question but in better clothes?

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It doesn't matter what your colleagues say. It doesn't matter what we say.

If you don't find any value in asking what the candidate's greatest weakness is, then don't ask it. Please don't feel like the Interview Police will come beating down your door if you don't ask at least three of the following five questions:

  • Why do you want to work here?
  • What's your greatest strength/weakness?
  • Where do you want to be in five years?
  • What kind of plant would you be?
  • Tell me about a project that didn't go well.

Ask the questions that let you assess the value of the candidate as it applies to you.

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-1 Uh, it matters what my colleagues say if they have some say in what questions are asked. This question is not about questions that you think I shouldn't ask, it was about a specific question that my coworkers have and will continue to ask if I don't convince them otherwise. Also your warm and fuzzy "use YOUR questions that YOU think are good" is pretty worthless. Lots of HR monkeys go by the same philosophy and don't learn a damn thing about candidates. –  Matt Olenik Oct 8 '10 at 22:05
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The sarcastic "Uh," is never helpful. –  Andy Lester Oct 8 '10 at 22:06
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What you're actually asking then is "How can I convince my colleagues of something that I can't actually put into words myself." –  Andy Lester Oct 8 '10 at 22:07
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Actually the why do you want to work here question seems like a good relevant question. If the person has some misconceptions they can be cleared up and maybe both people would be happier. Also if the reason is really good and reflects research in the company, that can also help the candidate. Really I wish more people asked that question. Where do you want to be in 5 years I tend to piss people off with. 5 years is a long time, in reality if a developer sticks around for even 3 years you are doing better than average employer.... –  Cervo May 26 '11 at 13:23
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At my last job interview, I didn't get asked "Why do you want to work here", and I am glad. To be honest I would have had to answer, "I don't really want to work here, but if I don't get a job pretty soon my house is going to be foreclosed on." As it happens, I came to like the job and have been here for 15 years now. –  Cyberherbalist Dec 12 '13 at 22:46

I think the effectiveness of the question depends on your ability to read people. A guy that is obviously saying bullsh*t have better chance to be saying bullsh*t later when you hire him. A guy that give a canned answer also gives up unconscious hint about his personnality (it usually infer a certain fear about authority - which can be a good thing - but it's still something you can infer about his personality).

So no I don't think the question is useless unless you are pretty poor at reading people (it's a skill). All soft questions like this one is mostly to get to know the guy and see if he is a good fit for you. Maybe this is not the best question for that and it's totally ok not to ask it if you don't feel like it but I don't think it is as useless as you seem to think it is.

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The purpose of the "greatest weakness" question is greatly misunderstood!

The idea is not to talk about your weakness as a person (e.g. "boy, I'm a workaholic!"), it's to give you an opportunity to be up front about what they are already going to find out. It's about how well of a match you are for the job requirements.

For example:

  • "Your ad says you want svn admin experience, but I've only worked with hg, however I'm fast at learning."
  • "Your ad says that fluency in Spanish is desired, but I only took two years of it in high school."

Naturally, you should do the same comparison of your skills/experience for the "greatest strength" question too.

Also, if the ad really describes you perfectly, when asked for your weakness simply say "I don't think there are any. I'm a good fit for this job."

I'm trying to imagine how the original meaning of this question got to be misinterpreted to be about personality, and it probably happens when a more junior interviewer is given the list of questions to ask and they don't know what it means. If you are in the position to change this at your company, reword the question to be specific: "This job requires A, B, C, what are your weaknesses in these areas?" [The question actually does the interviewee a favor: Their resume might show no experience with X, but you might find something that compensates for that.]

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No, I'm pretty sure the interviewers who ask this are looking for bona-fide personal weaknesses. Most job ads are full of fluff. Often a technology that is used occasionally will find its way on the add with X years experience. The ad to replace me listed the R language, and we used it once a few years ago to compute some errors and have not used it since. Also some of the better companies will just ask for one modern language and one scripting language and a few other things which are general enough that most people meet those requirements.... –  Cervo May 26 '11 at 13:27

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