How important is self-awareness in the interview?

You've heard of the interview question "what's your greatest weakness?", so you know there must be some interest in this self-awareness thing when it comes to interviewing. Self-awareness is important in interviews, sometimes it's more important than other times (whether the job involves teamwork or inspiring followership, for example). And it's not just being self-aware that is important but also the willingness to talk about it. OK, so a few thoughts:

The "what's your greatest weakness?" question...ugh

Personally, I think it's a pretty light-weight recruiting tactic; not particularly sophisticated at that. Having said that, I have lobbed this softball over the plate a few times myself (hey, there's always room for improvement). Obviously, the goal of this question is to assess self-awareness. The problem is that, first, people see this question coming from a mile away so even the least self-aware has a fluffy answer all ready to go. Also, I think that self-awareness is one of those qualities that is best observed in the context of other questions versus just asking about it ("what was challenging about that project?", "why did you find that challenging?", "what new skills did you need to develop?", "tell me about the most frustrating times at work", "tell me about situations where you have had to engage others outside your work group for help" etc., etc.). If you want someone to tell you about what they are not good at, you at least have to dig for it a's only fair. Also people fear this question. Do they take the risk to give a real answer? Do they give a fluff answer and see if the interviewer notices? How uncomfortable.

What is self-awareness at it’s best?

A combination of humility and confidence with details to back it up. This means that it’s not just about how the interviewee feels at any given moment, but how they are perceived and how they translate their feelings and signals from others into actions. I guess what I mean by this is that it’s not enough to be aware, you have to be proactive, reactive…just do something productive with the information. And yes, it’s OK to have feelings at work.

You take the good, you take the bad

I know that this is going to come as a surprise to you…please don’t think less of Microsoft. We don’t hire *perfect* people (if you’ve met me you have your proof). This isn’t a Stepford Company. Going into any interview situation, you have to be thinking about the fact that people are analyzing you; the good and the bad. A little well-articulated self-awareness is going to allow you to address your areas for personal development (gotta love the euphemisms!). Better to address them than to have the interviewer wonder if you even know about them (trust me, they will find some areas for personal development during the interview). And guess what, not knowing what you need to work on is actually something you would need to work on (if you know what I mean).

What's more important: being a know-it-all or knowing how to work well with others?

That's a loaded question. It's rare that an interviewer would expect you to know everything about a given subject (it's rare that an interviewer knows everything about a given subject). As someone who has interviewed many, many people, I can tell you that knowing how to tap into the strengths of peers is a huge asset. Knowing where to go to find information is a huge asset. Knowing what you don't know is a huge asset. So admitting, in the course of an interview, that you weren't the only one that took credit for a project or that you weren't the only person responsible for it's success, that you received help from others; that's a good thing. If in the interview, you are being considered for any kind of lead or manager role (in the immediate future or ever, really), then you are going to *have to* get OK with tooting other peoples' horns (not to mention adding more cow bell). And if the team you are interviewing with is a high performing team, you better get good at it from the get-go. They key is to ensure that you are pulling your weight relative to others and accurately assessing team member strengths with respect to work needs. It's not that you need over-shadow co-workers. At least that is how I (and many other smart interviewers) think about it.

What are your references going to say?

References are probed for both strength and weakness areas and the people checking references know how to read between the lines ("Oh, he works best independently? Why is that?") and to take into account what is not being said. Also consider that after you have joined a new company, unofficial references can come out of the woodwork via networking relationships. You don't want your new employer to feel that you weren't perfectly up-front with them about the areas that you need to work on. Also, if your new employer's culture isn't particularly tolerant of your style (being very direct, for example, not that I have any personal experience with being direct...hee!), then maybe it's best to get it out on the table before you join and save yourself the trouble of joining a group that's not going to take to your style well. Bad team or culture fits are painful for everyone involved (not that teams can't flex for individual styles, but there are simply some traits that upset some team dynamics).

 A matter of personal maturity

I find that mature people, mature leaders particularly, are very self-aware. Part of this may be hearing and acknowledging feedback from others over a period of time. I can't be the only one that notices how often great leaders are described as "humble". Some people are born that way (not me!) and some learn it by having their neck stepped on a few times (that sounds familiar!). At the end of the day, a lack of self-awareness signals one of several things. It could be a lack of depth (the person hasn't thought about their weaknesses and how they are perceived) which could be a rookie mistake (hopefully they grow out of it). It could be that they are aware but they refuse to do anything about it (these folks are nothing but fun, fun, fun!). Or it could be a sign of insecurity, of over-compensating, of feeling like a fraud and being afraid that the world is going to figure it out. Oh heck, it could be a combination of these things.

Of course anyone could make the mistake of not thinking through the importance of self-awareness in an interview situation and not being prepared to address it in the interview. Well, not any of my blog readers but possibly some other people.

Thanks to John Cass for the fodder

Comments (17)
  1. Wine-Oh says:

    Interesting Stuff…. Thanks for sharing.

    I want to ask your opinion about the other million dollar question that comes up in interviews and something I am struggling with… "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"  Apparently saying I want to be a department head or I want to manage people isnt a good answer.

    Heather do you have any insight that you could share (if its not a trade secret) into how to best answer this, or what criteria a recruiter may be looking for in answering this question?

    PS-I hope this puts me in good standing after my last post.

  2. Kenny says:

    Dear Heather,

    I enjoy reading your articles. I’ve learned a lot from you.

    I’ve had many interviews. It’s very hard to find a position that perfectly fits one. I’ve applied for jobs that are not perfect match to my interest. I know that the interviewers would figure it out during the interview and they actually did. The problem is that how to get interview chances for  the positions that really fit you.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh, you are always in good standing…no worries. So the question of where you want to be in 5 years is really designed to determine how ambitious you are (which is obvious) but mostly what you are passionate about. So focus on the passion in the answer. If you want to be managing people, make your answer about managing a high-performing team, acting as a good mentor, etc. The reason why you want to be where you want to be is key. I think "managing people" is the easy, expected answer. The interviewer also wants to know that you have thought through your career plan. Highly sought after people usually have a clear answer to this question. Hope that helps.

    Kenny, hmm, that is a tough one. Is there a trusted peer or maybe former manager that you could sit down and talk to about your strengths? Maybe you are targeting the wrong kinds of positions altogether. You need to find that magical cross section of what you want to do and what you are good at. Also, have someone you trust and who knows your background take a look at your resume. It’s possible that maybe your resume isn’t truly representing the skills you bring. Definitely get the opinion of someone you know. Also consider trying to network into jobs versus applying. It sounds like you are applying for jobs you know aren’t a fit…don’t do that anymore. Focus on the ones you do fit!

  4. Paul says:

    I’m going to be a little contrary today.  I think the question "Tell me about your greatest weakness" invites self-serving answers, especially from people who aren’t that self-aware or introspective.  People are **so** expecting the question that the facile answer that could be perceived as a backhanded strength is virtually automatic.

    Let’s put this in a different context.  Let’s say you are out meeting people at a bar.  Or, at a picnic.  Or, at a church social.  Are you going to volunteer a truthful answer to a question like that to someone that you barely know?  Especially given that you might really have a good feeling about the person you’re talking to, someone you could see having a long term friendship with, and not want to create a lasting ‘unfortunate’ impression.

    You could say "Well, that’s a different context.  I need to probe for potential problem areas when thinking about hiring someone."  Perhaps.  But, I would say that it really isn’t that different.  In a social setting, we are still looking for clues that will suggest that we won’t get along, that someone is a poor fit as a friend, that we don’t share common interests, that our personalities don’t mesh.  And, we’re looking for many, if not all, of the same character flaws that you would hope to discover in an interview.  The difference is, we find ways to work it into the conversation subtly, and actually end up learning a lot more about the real person than I think comes out in most interviews.

    Moreover, **my** greatest weakness is context-dependent.  I suspect that in this way, most people are like me.  We all have numerous flaws, but the situation dictates what is the greatest.  If I’m trying to meet a girl, or close a deal with a new client, then shyness, reticence or inability to control my emotions may be my biggest flaw. If I’m trying to write a white paper, or I’m often expected to be on the critical path for a project, then my tendency to procrastinate might be my biggest flaw.  If I’m managing people, then insensitivity and arrogance may be my biggest flaw.  So, how do I answer such a question without context?  (Hey, I’m not saying that any of those things are problem areas for me . . . they’re just examples.  "Yeah, right", you’re saying).

    That’s why I prefer to engage someone in conversation about any subject they’re passionate about, other than the job at hand.  If you can get them talking and sharing about that, they are much more likely to open up and you’ll see strengths and weaknesses, and you can use that to come back to the position you want to fill.

    So, in an interview setting, I’d say that my own greatest weakness is an inability to express my ‘best’ greatest weakness.  Not that I don’t have a keen awareness of the pain that you get with the gain, but I do think I exude that.  I’m a strong taste that you either like or you don’t.  Is that a good answer to the question?

    In any case, I would prefer not to create situations where I am encouraging people to tell me little white lies from the first time I meet them.  Very hard to build trust that way.  And, when I’m on the other side, it’s kind of like the doctor asking you to pull down your underwear and bend over.  It’s uncomfortable, and leaves a really bad feeling that takes a while to get rid of.  Even if I’m absolutely blunt and forthright, I feel like I’m not totally telling the truth, like there’s something you really want to know and my job is to not tell you.  And, I’ll squirm and grimace almost as much as with the aforementioned doctor’s instruction.

    Can’t I be self-aware some other way?

  5. Kenny says:

    I’m wondering how a big company like MS search for their cadidates in the resume database. Do you have a system that you key in some criteria (like GPA and some specific skills) and the resume of the candidates pop-up?

    I’m sorry for that stupid question.

  6. Jaz says:

    Thank you so much Heather.  The blogs from Microsoft that cover this area were really useful to me when i was trying for placement year placements, and would recomend everyone to read them.

    I suppose my weakness is being put on the spot as i found i tended to panic. i did a mock interview with the head of the placement unit which went ok, but come a real interview i stuffed up badly, however the interviewers for my first real one didn’t put me too much at ease and the majority of other interviews i had weren’t so bad.  another year and i’ll have to start all this again.  scaryness.

  7. Margo says:

    Thanks for the info!  I came across your site while randomly looking around, and now I am a daily reader.  

    I find my biggest hurdle isn’t the interview, but getting it.  I am moving to Boston at the end of next month.  Getting someone to return my calls and continue follow-up correspondance is like pulling teeth.  I get bites to my resume and then interest drops off faster than my toes in winter.

    Any advice for a marketing grad?

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul-you aren’t being contrary, you are just doing a better job explaining my point than I did.

    Kenny-we usually search the darabase by keywords. These can be skills, technologies, names of companies or educational institution. I doubt people are using GPA as a keyword though. Hope that helps.

    Jaz-mock interviews can help you get through that. try to anticipate interview questions and then answer them out loud to yourself or someone else. They might not be theexact questions that are asked, but the extra preparation, from a psychological standpoint, really help take the edge off.

    Margo-I’d try to figure out why interest is dropping of, forst of all. It might be something you said but are completely unaware of. Try to figure that out. Second, I’d try to network into jobs. Yuo can call people you know or use something like LinkedIn. I’m probably not the best example of how to land a job (or maybe I am….I’ve always been referred for jobs), but I used temp work to get a foot in the door (granted it was the agency door, but same rule applies for corps).

  9. Kenny says:


    Thank you for the info.

    How many people can actually get their ideal jobs? A lot of times, people do their jobs because they have to but not because they like to. Especially when one has time limit to get a job, he won’t care what kinds of jobs to work for. He only cares about when he can start. Another issue is that sometimes, you won’t know if the job is your ideal one before working or perhaps before talking to interviewers.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Kenny, the best people in their field can get their ideal jobs. This is because their expertise is recognized and they are in demand. If someone comes into an interview situation and only cares when he can start, that is a signal that they are not in demand and that is probably not someone we would be too interested in here. This goes for highly skilled types of careers. For other areas of the labor market, not requiring a depth of expertise, the person that is willing to take the job only because they need a paycheck is more of a reality. Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise in hiring for those kinds of roles.

  11. Paul says:

    I should read more carefully.  Note to self: don’t read and write late at nite and think you know what what was said.  I hate it when we violently agree.

  12. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul- I think it makes both of us sound smarter ; )

  13. Jason says:

    Hi Heather,

    This the first time that i have read your article and found it very interesting. what actually brought me here is the interview I had with Microsoft yesterday and would like to share my views of it with you without specifically mentioning the position i was interviewed for.

    First of all I do agree that when one is the "best in the business" no one can actually stop you. Probably you won’t need an interview in those cases to get in. But unfortunately thats not probably the case with all people is it?

    Now with the interview that I had. Now I applied to MS for positions which were  different from what I was interviewed for. Now I was told that my resume was found from the database. The interview went OK but then came in the tricky question " If given a choice of a job that you applied for and one for which you are interviewed for (which again I should say, relate to 2  diff. but related fields of Computer Science), which one would you choose?". well I had to say that I would probably take up one that I applied for since thats something I have been doing atleast for last year or so. Now there are a few problems with it.

    1. I haven’t been called or interviewed by the team that I actually want to get into.

    2. I don’t know how would it be like working for the position that I was interviewed for since have no "professional" experience in it since I just have started off with my career.

    The interviewer concluded that I am more passionate about the positions that have applied for. To an extent that is true but that doesnot mean that I may not be passionate about the something else.

    Would like to hear your views on it

  14. HeatherLeigh says:

    I think they may have also been trying to assess how you feel about exploring outsid eof your comfort zone. For example, will you always default to the areas that you know best or other areas that may be more risky but where you will learn more. There could be a number of things they were trying to find out with that question. It could have just been that they were trying to figureo ut if you were interested enough to move forward in the process.

  15. Avinash Kumar Singh says:

    In my view this is the important topic in interview because if any one is aware of himself then he has knowledge of all kinds of activities surrounding him because every social ,political and all types of activities may b effect him directly or indirectly so this is to much imp[ortant.

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