04/02/2012 11:30 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2012

Answering the Question "What's Your Greatest Weakness?"

The standard job interview follows a fixed script. Here we sit, two human beings (or three, or four) with so many interesting things we could be talking about, right at hand; and we blow the opportunity. Instead of diving into a substantive, free-ranging conversation about business, opportunities, problems, solutions and ideas, we fall into a tired script: "Why should we hire you?" "What do your old bosses say about you?" "What's your greatest weakness?"

I chalk up the scripted interview protocol to fear -- fear on the part of the interviewer, who doesn't know how to launch a non-scripted business/life conversation with another person, and follow it wherever it goes. (Bureaucrats repeat, "We have to ask all the candidates the same questions, in the same order - it's the law." False!) It's harder to sit down with a person and attempt to understand him or her, his or her outlook on the work at hand (Marketing, IT, whatever) and brainstorm about the situation on the ground at a given workplace. It takes more honesty than many job interviewers are comfortable with.

To get a strong feel for the candidate's thought process, we should be saying to applicants "One of the things that slows us down is the handoff of sales leads between our trade show folks and the outside sales effort. What are your thoughts on that handoff? How could we do that better?"

When we can get past pleasantries and lists of accomplishments and ticking off of job requirements, we can get a feel for the person standing in front of us, how he or she shows up on the job and what he or she would be like to work with. Isn't all that the point of a job interview -- to get past the surface, far past what a resume would tell us? If so, why are we still wasting time with mindless, insulting interview questions like "What is your greatest weakness?"

Along with "Why Should We Hire You?" and "What Would Your Former Bosses Say About You?," the 'weakness' question shows up in the Bad Interview Question Hall of Fame, every time the roll is called. It's a grovel-inducing question. Adults don't ask one another about their weaknesses in any other business or social situation. Of course not -- it's rude to assume that people are inherently flawed, much less that we as first-time business acquaintances should be privy to job candidates' deepest concerns about themselves. That's why we're coached to give B.S. answers, like "Oh, I work myself too hard."

One friend of mine counsels job-seekers to say "My greatest weakness? Chocolate!" and that's fine, but I'd prefer that you take the dumb-interview-question opportunity to shift the frame just a bit, to step out of the expected applicant script (the one I call "Is there anything else thou requirest, Your Majesty?") and gently re-level the power-dynamic playing field between you and the person who may be your next boss. You don't have to grovel and look for a non-self-deprecating weakness that you can pull out when this garbage question rears its head on a job interview. You can question the question, instead.

"My greatest weakness?" you will say. "What a great question! Oh, I used to obsess about my weaknesses. I was just certain, when I was younger, that there were all sorts of things wrong with me. I read books and took classes on all kinds of things. As I got older I realized that I'm fine -- that weaknesses aren't a useful way for me to look at myself, but rather than I should get better at steering myself into situations where I can do my best. For me that's marketing research. Other things that I shouldn't be anywhere near -- in my case, graphic design, for instance -- I leave to the people who are wired for that stuff. These days I don't think of myself having weaknesses that need correcting, but of always moving closer to the work I'm meant to be doing."

If you are feeling your mojo, of course, feel free to add "What about you?" to the end of your reply.

After all, what kind of manager or HR person asks questions of a job applicant that he or she wouldn't be happy to answer, in return? Isn't a job interview a balanced affair, in which one job applicant decides how good the match is between him- or herself and one employer -- and the employer rep does the same? Isn't there something inherently wrong when one side of an interaction holds the view that only its decision process is worth considering?

One client of mine got a call from a supervisor at the county seat, forty minutes from her home. "You applied for a job with the county," said the supervisor, "and we want you to come in tomorrow." "I would like to," said the job-seeker, "but I'm in the process of moving into the city, and tomorrow is completely booked. Could I possibly speak with your interviewer on the phone tomorrow, and/or come down to your office next week?" "Certainly not!" snapped the supervisor. "You're lucky you're getting an interview, at all." "Oh, my goodness, thank you for sharing that point of view," said my client. "It would not be a good match, in any case, but best of luck with your search."

You'll never get a better job by groveling. No one is going to see your power until you see it, yourself. If our answer to the question "What's your greatest weakness?" sounds too edgy for your taste, ask yourself this: has someone been feeding you toxic, mojo-squashing Kool-Aid?