Software

What are your strengths? Ask a colleague

We all hate the canned interview question, "What are your strengths." One way to get around the awkwardness is to ask your colleagues to answer it for you.

Most of us have faced the interview question, "What are your strengths?" And most of us have given an answer that is some variation on "I'm a team player" or "I'm very detail oriented."

To avoid putting the interviewer into a boredom-induced coma, why not try something different? I suggest that you prepare for this question beforehand by asking some friends or coworkers what your strengths are, or what unique quality you bring to the work experience. Then tell an interviewer that, instead of depending on your own view of what you bring to the table, you decided to quiz your coworkers. Then tell the interviewer what feedback they gave you.

The reason for this is that many people who are particularly strong in certain skills also happen to take those skills for granted and would never highlight them in an interview. Also, people very often don't see themselves as others see them.

For example, I am obsessive about returning messages or email on a timely basis. Part of this is because I hate a cluttered inbox. Part of it is that, back in 400 BC when I was growing up, it was rude not to respond to someone who was talking to you. And since I was around when email was born, it seemed to me another way of speaking to others, not just a storage place for communication that you may or may not get to in your lifetime.

I am always surprised when someone answers a response from me by thanking me for the fast response, as if it's an unheard of courtesy. This behavior of mine is something I take for granted, but it is something others see as a benefit. Something I may feel is an obsessive/compulsive tic may be viewed as a communication skill.

So before your next interview, ask your colleagues what they would consider the areas you excel at. And then use that feedback to answer the dreaded, "What are your strengths?" interview question. (Of course if your question is greeted by an awkward 5-minute silence, you might want to go with your own list.)

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

25 comments
footprintless
footprintless

Good article that would have been better without all the annoying self-praise in the second half. I agree with the opinions but the delivery was irksome.

ahmedali
ahmedali

It's very useful for you to get feedback from your colleagues all the time, to be able to improve your performance and your communication skills.

scoopboys
scoopboys

This may sound like a "pat" question or a useless one, but often questions are asked for reasons that aren't as straightforward as you may think. Sometimes I ask questions not to get a specific answer but to see how (or even if) a candidate analyzes a situation, or to see if they have prepared for an interview, or for many other reasons. The commenter who said he would reply to "what is your ideal job" with "$2M per year and I don't have to show up" probably wouldn't be asked back, because he displayed (inadvertently by his flippant response) that his ideal job is one where he doesn't have to work hard. It's very difficult to get a read on people sometimes, and a variety of questions (some that may seem pointless) give you a variety of insights. When one candidate responded to an opening question of "tell me about yourself including your work experience" with a rambling 25 minute diatribe that the interviewer couldn't seem to interrupt, he displayed plenty.

wiggledbits
wiggledbits

I think it is more to get a gauge on how you'll fit into the existing culture and/or department you'll be working it. I work with someone is is pretty sharp but I would never hire him because of his personality and work ethic. I think these types of questions could reveal these flaws in a candidate.

Englebert
Englebert

...expected from all and prepared accordingly with not an iota of truth attached. The only worse question than this is ' Tell me about yourself ' ...blah blah blah Truly serious interviewers would cut to the chase and ask relevant questions rather than playing games. Here's another moronic question : Why should I hire you ? Equally moronic answer : Because I'm the best person for the job !

mccor005
mccor005

Maybe the interviewer should find a better question or ask themselves what are they trying to get at by asking this question.

kgc
kgc

My first ever Psychology tutuor put this in perspective. When asked which psychometric tests demonstrated strengths and which weaknesses he replied. "There is no such thing; a weakness is an over developed strength". If you can work that into your answer with an example it will make you seem more perceptive. I always say iI ahve a sense of humour, which is useful in diffusing awkward situations, but can be devastating in creating them.

davrays
davrays

Nice article :) Generally speaking, it is useful to find out how others see you, so it is worth to ask both about the strengths and the weaknesses too. Any knowledge could make you stronger.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

My strengths? "Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. What are your expectations going to be?" (Edit: I guess that would "date" me, but the interviewer probably wouldn't recognize the reference anyhow... ;-) ) Another "pat" interview question - "Describe your ideal job." I answered "Oh, my ideal job would be no-show, let's say two million a year, with full perks and bennies. I would call that 'ideal', wouldn't you? Now can you tell me a little more about how a person with my expertise in this position would be expected to function here?"

scoopboys
scoopboys

It's perfectly fine to get answers about your strengths if you want to know, but from an interviewing perspective, isn't it better to answer with something that fits the job? If you ask colleagues what your strengths are and they tell you "you are detail oriented" but you are applying for a high-level architecture position that doesn't lend itself to detail orientation, I would argue that giving that answer is bad. Even if you don't hear "you're a visionary" from colleagues, if the position demands that you are a visionary, it's better to talk about a strength that would be useful in that position. I understand the point of the article and I think it's good to get a 360 review for your own personal understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, but when you are in an interview you need to touch on things that are important for that job. If I am interviewing somebody for a supervisory position and they say they are a great writer, I would probably see that as neutral. If they say they are good at viewing a problem from multiple sides and considering varying opinions, I would probably see that as a better answer...

mullachv
mullachv

Ask the interviewer whether she hasn't figured that out in the 15minutes that you were talking?

martynmoore
martynmoore

Love the idea of canvassing the views of others. On the subject of timely responses to emails, how long is too long and what's about right. I try to respond within 24 hours, even if it's just to say, "I'm on it, more soon... " And back to the views of others, I used to work with a guy who suffered a pretty low reputation in his industry network. Yet those who knew him personally thought he was a great guy. Turns out he had this habit of launching straight into an email question, request or even demand without a hint of a greeting or an "I hope you are well... " It was like his emails were typed even as the thought was still forming in his head. But the way it caused others to see him was profound and he still has no idea. Maybe I should forward this post to him!

billfranke
billfranke

All opinions are ipso facto subjective, but when you get others' opinions on what kind of person you are, you can probably cobble together a less subjective opinion of yourself if enough of your colleagues agree on your strong points and weak points -- and in a job interview, you can leave out the ones you don't like (as any intelligent person would do). While I agree that you should emphasize the strengths you have that are required for the job you're applying for, good character, a pleasant personality, good communications skills, and good manners are strengths that go with any type of job. If your colleagues agree that you have them, then the interviewer will probably be more likely to accept that you do, unless your demeanor in the interview is negative and contradicts those opinions. I always enjoy reading your articles. You're an excellent writer and a thoughtful person. Even though I've retired from the workaday employer-employee world and work for myself and by myself at home, I always read what you write: it's always interesting, and from this article I learned something useful.

LightVelocity
LightVelocity

if the question is what are your strengths, would providing an answer that reflects your colleagues' view about your strengths be correct? One should position their strength based on what is appropriate for the position your are being interviewed for. Unless you go around letting people you are seeking this feedback to use it for this interview, you would get information that might not be actually useful or relevant to the interview Besides, sometimes you would be provided with strength information that you might not necessarily like. He/She takes all the odd assignments without a crib. Well, I think the author was actually trying to provide a way out and wasnt actually prescribing.

earlbo
earlbo

colleagues opinions still subjective

Sarnath
Sarnath

Nice idea to ask colleagues... you might be surprised at times.... btw, Our company sports a 360 degree feedback where you are rated by peers, managers and also your subordinates...anonymously.. The system generates a complete report of your strengths and weaknesses --- which now looks good to attend the next interview ;-)

onalethata
onalethata

It is always good to use keywords to describe yourself. Words like Innovative, Persuasive e.t.c will drive the point quickly to the interviewer. You may follow that with explanation and examples but becareful not to hit the bush - diverting away from the real meaning of your keyword.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I once responded "All the parts I need, all the tools I need, all the time I need. I never have more than one call at a time in the queue, I have unlimited use of a company vehicle, and all SLAs are five business days." The interviewer laughed; I was hired. Just because we're flippant about working doesn't mean we don't want to work...or won't work hard.

gechurch
gechurch

I can actually see a lot of value in this question. I see lots of people these days whose self-image is totally different from how others see them. I've worked with people who are borderline incompetent, but believe they are doing a great job. I've worked with people that think they are friendly and approachable, but in reality people go to extra effort to avoid having to talk to them. These are exactly the sort of people you want to weed out during an interview, and this is a good question to that end.

gechurch
gechurch

To me it's a given that you would frame the answers you receive, rather than repeating them verbatim. Hopefully though you are applying for positions that suits your strengths, in which case little framing will be needed.

blarman
blarman

Excellent points. Both the interviewer and the candidate should be focusing on whether or not you are the best candidate for the job. Asking pointless questions like this really don't address the need to determine if you are the best fit for this job. This is strictly a fluff question designed to take up time. Better questions are framed: "Describe a time when you had to..."

gechurch
gechurch

Hopefully this comment was tongue-in-cheek, because actually answering the question with such a lack of humility is hardly likely to further your goal of landing the job. For starters, the question will not neccessarily be 15 minutes in. The interviewer may prefer to ask it first up, and then ask follow-up questions to guage whether your answers confirm your perceived strenghts or not. Secondly, I suspect many or even most interviewers are more interested in finding out how you see yourself, rather than what your strengths really are.

wrmosca
wrmosca

no matter where the opinions come from. Why not listen to someone you work with and find out how he sees you and your skills?

davrays
davrays

Well, sure they are subjective. But after listening a bunch of *subjective* opinions about yourself, you could gain the *objective* knowledge about yourself :)

4fb
4fb

Your own is opinion is still subjective as well because it reflects in most cases how you would like to be.

Editor's Picks