Strengths continue to be a hot topic for our readers (see our other post on strength based interviews) and the number of employers choosing to move away from traditional competency based interview to look instead at Strengths is increasing. Many of you Finalists are now in the midst of interviews and assessment centres and you don’t want to find that you are suddenly faced with questions for which the STAR format just doesn’t seem to work! I thought it might be timely to revisit the subject of “Strengths” from a different perspective*. This may help when you’re wondering how to respond to those unexpected interview questions.
One way of identifying your strengths is to imagine a sliding scale. In the middle of the scale sits a quality. Let’s imagine that quality is confidence. If the scale tips too far one way, confidence can become arrogance. If it tips too far the other way, it becomes timidity.
The trick of developing the quality of confidence into a strength is to be able to use it to the right level, at the right time and when it’s right for you.
Of course each end of the scale represents the extreme expression of the quality where it could be described as being off-balance. Most of us don’t operate at the extreme ends of the see-saw. However there’ll be times when you recall doing something really well – when your confidence level was “just right” and you felt your handling of a particular situation was spot on. You were demonstrating confidence as a strength. In sport, this might be described as “hitting the sweet spot”. The feeling you get when you play a ball just right!
Here are two more examples:
Determination, when overdone becomes ruthlessness. When underdone, spinelessness. When you apply determination to a long term goal in order to achieve success, you’re harnessing that value and illustrating what it looks like as a strength.
Reliability, when overdone becomes indispensability. This can mean others become overly reliant on you. Sliding to the other end of the scale, reliability becomes unreliability. You become the “flaky” person of whom people eventually tire. You’re never there when needed! In the “sweet spot” your demonstration of reliability means you’re likely be given greater responsibility in your role.
Understanding qualities in relative rather than absolute terms can help you explore your approach and how you might describe yourself and your behaviours in different situations. Try thinking of your qualities in more fluid terms rather than as absolutes and as a possible spectrum of responses that are content and person-dependent, rather than as innate and unalterable strengths or weaknesses.
How does this work in practice?
So… when a recruiter asks:
“Give us an example of a weakness?”
You might say:
“Generally I would describe myself as very determined. However when I really want to win at something, then I can become pretty ruthless. I know that’s fine on the hockey pitch but it’s something I need to pay attention to in a work environment; it’s not always appropriate.”
If the recruiter says “Tell me a bit more about that”, you’ll need to have an example of a time when you did overplay your determination where the context was not appropriate. You can use the CARE structure to prepare for questions like these. If you’re able to expand on your example you should get points for demonstrating both credibility and authenticity.
(N.B. If you’re applying for a job in sales or to be Lord Sugar’s apprentice don’t use this example- ruthlessness can be good!).
When you have to field a question about your personal development and what you’d like to develop, you can draw on areas where you genuinely know you need to be “more in the middle” of the scales. Use examples to qualify your response and to demonstrate your self awareness and willingness to develop.
If you’re invited to give examples of your strengths, for example: “What are your top three strengths?” or, “How would your friends describe you?” Try providing authentic and relevant supporting evidence by selecting qualities you know they’re looking for and considering examples where you can provide evidence of your ability to apply a particular quality in a timely and appropriate way. (i.e. as a strength).
“My friends would say that I’m an eternal optimist. I can always see a positive side to a situation and that helps me cope fairly well with disappointment. For example, if I don’t get the high mark I’m expecting for an assignment, I’ll take a deep breath and then find out how I could have improved it. I’m not unrealistic; there are times when it’s not helpful to be cheerful, for example if a friend is distressed, but people say I am a generally positive person to be around.”
Your ability to go into more detail in order to evidence the under or overdoing of a quality will demonstrate that you understand that human behaviour cannot be simply divided into black and white, good or bad. It will show that you understand that there’s a time and place when you can demonstrate a quality effectively, thus showcasing your ability to identify times when you have turned a quality into a personal strength.
Occasionally there are times where underdoing or overdoing a quality, (operating from the far end of a scale), may be the appropriate thing to do. For example, the quality of being interested, when overdone, becomes nosiness. For a tabloid journalist that’s a strength which will help to nail a good story. Obsessive attention to detail in order to ensure the accuracy of end of year accounts will similarly come into its own as a strength at the right time and place.
The Quality Spectrum
Here are a few more examples on the quality spectrum:
|bogged down in detail||strategic||out of touch|
You can create your own chart based on the Person Specification for the job role you’re applying for in order to identify different ends of the spectrum and then consider those qualities you can illustrate with Strengths examples. Have fun using a thesaurus if it’s not immediately obvious which values should be represented at the far end of the scale.
Make use of the recruiter’s webpages to identify the qualities they consider to be important and add these to your list. These may not always be explicitly stated, but the impression you gain from the kinds of people they’re hoping to attract and the values they express will give you some valuable clues.
*©Sprint Women’s Development Workbook – quoted with permission. The Springboard Consultancy.