Two of the most dreaded questions in interviewing are dreaded for good reason. “What is your greatest strength?” and “What is your greatest weakness?” are mirror image questions that drive jobseekers crazy. (For the record, they drive most recruiters crazy, too; they would love to hear the real answers, but never get more than tired clichés in return.) We are perpetually perplexed by these mirror image questions because they are not mirror images at all – they’re the same question.
Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.
Have you noticed that your meticulous attention to detail makes it hard for you to finish anything on time because your perfectionism turns you into a bottleneck on projects? Your empathy and deep connection to the people you work with makes it hard for you to make tough decisions as a manager. Your admirable persistence in the face of obstacles makes you stubborn and resistant to change. Your quick mind makes you interrupt people as they try to form their thoughts. You get the idea.
It’s hard to change these qualities in ourselves, even when they no longer serve us well, even when they are actually hurting our career. We treasure our strengths because they make us unique; they make us look good. Until they don’t.
We are continually advised to play to our strengths. And most successful people know their weaknesses (or the more progressive term, “growth areas”) well. But when your strengths take over and you don’t have a way to balance them, you can wind up, as coach Susan Biali wrote for Psychology Today about a client, “as though [your strengths are] dragging you around by your hair to the point where you feel lost and worn out.”
So what are the warning signs that your strength is becoming a liability for your career?
- People are starting to mention that “you always” react the same way. Consistent behavior is a good thing, but when people can predict your go-to reaction, no matter the circumstances, they may start working around you. I know a “big picture” manager whose subordinate stopped bringing her critical report data, “because I know you never want to dig into the numbers.” Be sure that the mode you use to examine or solve a problem is the right mode for this situation, and not just your knee jerk reaction.
- You notice that you are typecast into the same kinds of assignments over and over. When your boss or your team asks you to do the same kind of work because “we know it’s your thing,” you may be perceived as not having enough range to do more challenging work. Staying in your comfort zone is well, comfortable, but it’s not going to position you for growth or promotions. Be sure you use your full range of skills, even if it means your performance isn’t guaranteed. Uncertainty means you’re growing.
- You haven’t made a mistake lately. When was the last time you struggled on a project? If your outcomes seem to flow easily, it may be because you’re not challenging yourself. (Or because you’re only getting projects that are safely in your range; see above.)
Learning to overcome weaknesses is hard, and learning to overcome strengths is even harder. And even more important. “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”
― Andy Rooney