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What is your greatest weakness? And is that really any of my business?
Dear Lucy, the workplace advice column written by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times, ran a letter this week from a 52-year-old unemployed male.
"I've just been asked in a job interview to name my greatest weakness," he said. "I hummed and hawed for a bit and then said something like, 'Why don't you ask my wife?' I didn't get the job."
"What's your greatest weakness?" has become an accepted, common question in corporate interviews. A manager might worry these days about being reprimanded for telling an employee, "You look real nice in that shirt," but they can invite a job applicant to draw a big red circle over the most vulnerable part of their psyche.
Keith Murnighan, a distinguished professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, says bluntly, "It's a stupid question. It's basically unethical," because it tempts people to say something silly and disingenuous just to please someone with the power to hire and fire. Especially in this economy, when a man or woman's greatest weakness may be that they're unemployed.
Why should someone who wants a job have to confide their fears, flaws and darkest dreams to total, judgmental strangers? A job interview is a professional encounter, after all, not psychoanalysis, a religious confession, a third date or family therapy.
Professor Mugnighan has seen another gambit he doesn't like: interviewers will invite a job applicant to take a seat when they enter the room, then discover that there's no chair. Hardee-har.
"They construct funny things to put people on the spot and see how they handle it," he says. "They tell each other, 'It's to see how they think on their feet,' but let's face it: Part of it is just a power trip."
Dear Lucy says that when the FT has asked CEOs about their greatest weakness, they tend to pick a virtue and dress it down to appear humble. So CEOs painfully confess that maybe they work tooo hard, or are just tooo trusting or demand a little tooo much of themselves.
Northwestern's Keith Murnighan, who has written a book called, Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, suggests that a job applicant might tell an interviewer who asks, "What's your greatest weakness?" that "You know, I really don't suffer fools well."
"It does kind of throw things back at them," he says.
I'd like to offer another suggestion, too. "What's my greatest weakness? Modesty!"