There are No Such Thing as Weaknesses, Only Weak Leaders

Determining the difference between a weakness and a personality trait.

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What are your weaknesses?

Forever, interviewees have this inane question posed to them in job interviews. Thus commences a game of cat and mouse, wherein the clued-in candidate responds by naming a strength cleverly—or not so cleverly—disguised as a weakness. “I bite off more than I can chew,” she says, implying that her greatest “weakness” is that she is so driven to win that she overwhelms even her own wide bandwidth by saying yes to every task or project hurled her way. The only thing we learn from the answer is whether or not the interviewee is keen to the game. Stupid.

I contend that there is no such thing as a personal weakness and that, in a business situation, what we would otherwise label a weakness is actually the failure on the part of a leader to adequately align the personality traits of his or her team members with the proper position in the organization.

Certainly, there are team members who may not have the requisite skills to excel in their positions. Consider a machine operator unfamiliar with the work order system that communicates how a part is to be manufactured or processed, or the team member on the shipping dock who doesn’t know how to accurately complete a packing slip. These individuals have training deficiencies, not weaknesses. Train them.

But what if the same machine operator doesn’t pay enough attention to details on the work order and doesn’t read the paperwork completely? Isn’t that a weakness? No. Rather, these individuals are in positions that are inconsistent with their personality traits.

I ascribe to the widely held belief that our personality traits are largely set somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11. By the time an individual reaches employment age, traits like self-motivation, need for praise, sociability, sense of urgency, patience, attention to detail and so on are innate to an individual. Try as he or she might, a leader will fail in attempting to change a team member’s core personality.

Nevertheless, a leader who is frustrated with an individual’s performance will, oftentimes, point to personality traits as the reason. They reference a struggling team member and note that the person just needs to pay more attention to the little things, or needs to be more of a self-starter, or needs to pick up the pace at work or needs to be more outgoing in the way he interacts with others. News flash: these are all personality traits set by age 11, and even under the best leadership on the planet the individuals exhibiting these so-called weaknesses will not change their behavior, at least not for long.

Why? Because the behaviors they are demonstrating are at the core of “who they are.” Not self-motivated? Too much of a social butterfly? Not outgoing enough? Impatient? No sense of urgency? Sloppy and inattentive to details? Too stuck on rules and hung up on the little things? All personality traits.

Inexperienced leaders are tempted to make the individual change these behaviors, and both become extremely frustrated when they fail to do so. Great leaders recognize that the job of the leader is not to change who their people are, but to find a position in the organization where the team member’s personality traits align with what it takes to be successful in the position.

Take for instance the manufacturing department manager I once employed who did a poor job of following through on details, became easily frustrated with his team members when they didn’t complete their work as fast as he thought they should and often upset those around him with his lack of patience. While he failed miserably in his manufacturing management position, that same individual excelled after we moved him into a business development and sales role, where his high sense of urgency and a lack of patience served him well.

A dedicated customer service representative who was great on following through but could never quite get comfortable with regular telephone interaction with customers proved to be a phenomenal member of the accounting team.

These two are just a couple of examples of valuable and dedicated individuals who struggled in their positions until we found roles for them that fit their personality traits. The results were more content team members, less frustrated leaders and a stronger organization overall.

There is no such thing as a weakness. But there are weak leaders and weak placements. Great leaders figure out what makes each team member tick, and then finds a position in the organization that aligns with that individual’s unique personality.

Originally published in the July 2015 issue.