My biggest flaw is how much I hate interviewers who ask the question “what is your biggest flaw?”. It makes for some really awkward interviews.
But ever since I was first asked it in a training interview during industrial placement prep at Gregynog during my degree1Incidentally, still the toughest interview I’ve had to do – thanks for nothing Clive, this question has always put me on edge. As an interviewee, I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to answer it honestly or to come up with a pat answer2Right now I’m snacking too much, not sure that’s relevant though. As an interviewer, I can see the logic behind it3Is this candidate self-critical? Can they evaluate their own work? Do they have a habit of stabbing coworkers?, but it belongs to a class of questions which I am fundamentally opposed to, what I like to call “oh shit” questions.
“Oh shit” questions are ones which put the candidate into a panic. From the scary side of the table, they’re the ones that give you the bad tingles as you realise that you don’t have a good answer, maybe you don’t belong here after all, oh god please let this be over so I can go home. If a candidate reacts that way to a question relevant to the skills and experience needed for the post then that’s useful information, but if you’re asking a question which you expect to put them into an anxious state in order to see how they react under pressure, I would question whether that’s ethical or fair4I was going to call out Google here for their famously esoteric interview questions, but apparently even they have realised this isn’t a sensible way to approach hiring. Unless you’re hiring for a job that will involve answering difficult questions under stressful circumstances5MP, perhaps, or primary school teacher, what you’re checking there isn’t actually a skill you need and it’s not a good proxy for the kind of pressure that happens in a work environment day to day. Interviews are already an artificial and unrepresentative environment, and it’s my belief that as interviewers we should be trying to put candidates at their ease so we can see what they’re really like and get full, honest(ish) answers. In my day to day I do everything I can to keep my team happy, calm and productive – it seems only fair to do the same for interview candidates.
Of course, it’s possible that the above is just my rationalisation for the fact that I don’t like being asked this question. I didn’t like it in Wales, I didn’t like it when I was asked it earlier this year by a fintech company in Swindon that I didn’t go and work with, I didn’t even like it when I was asked a variation of it at CERN6I still love you though, CERN – I wish I was an EU citizen…. For most of my professional career I’ve bumbled through with an answer about being a perfectionist which, whilst true and undoubtedly a genuine flaw in the real world where software needs to be shipped at some point, really sounds like something made up to sound good.
I think I may have matured into this question though. I’m settling into a fab new job with the excellent folks at IntentHQ right now, and as I’ve been finding my feet in a new team once again I’ve discovered that I really do have a biggest flaw and it’s actually pretty bad. So bad that I feel uncomfortable blogging about it. I’mma do it though.
Give me a minute.
My biggest flaw is my need to feel important
Ruth Trevor-Allen, 2022
There’s nothing I like more than to feel pivotal, like the team and organisation I’m in couldn’t function without me. I take on too much, I volunteer for everything, because I want to be able to see the impact my work is having everywhere around me. And that’s not healthy.
It’s not healthy for me, because no one can do everything, not even a superstar like me (/sarcasm). Taking on too much leads to more pressure points when conflicting deadlines hit at the same time. As a leader, I should be setting a good example and delegating responsibly. I should be looking after my own health and wellbeing so that I’m in the best position to support others, putting on my own oxygen mask first. I’ve skirted burnout so many times in my career, and had to take a long sabbatical from volunteering as a result. I need to accept my limits and be happy to watch others take on more responsibility – that’s what good mentors do, and I want to be a good mentor.
It’s not healthy for the organisations I work with because single points of failure are bad. Relying on heroic endeavors is bad. What if I leave and the next person isn’t a workaholic with a god complex? What if I miss things because I’m trying to do too much at once? What if I’m so constantly busy that my team don’t feel able to come to me when they need or want to?
The good news is, now I’ve spotted this thing about myself (that everyone around me probably already knew), I can start trying to fix it. It starts with being mindful of when I’m displaying this trait, and being honest and compassionate with myself for behaviour that falls short of my own standards. Who knows where it ends? Maybe I’ll post an update once I have some good mitigation strategies to share. In the meantime, all I can do is try.