Most Wall Street banks have some form of a leadership insight forum whereby a group of first-year analysts is invited to join one of the firm’s famed directors for an intimate hour-long Q&A. In my experience, the eager analysts ask perfunctory questions pertaining to the market outlook, insight into the firm and relatively conservative questions about the director’s career. One morning I was invited to join such a forum, however, I wanted more…
Growing up in a family with a doctor of Psychology / executive coach for a father, I am used to discussing and analyzing what makes highly successful people tick. Emboldened by my past I decided to ask a more daring question.
“Would you please talk a little about your strengths and your weaknesses and how…”. But before I could finish, the director preempted my question by making a kindly-phrased joke about the conversation becoming personal. Later that day, I received a good-natured teasing message from my friend Aranya saying “Wow, you went really personal, maybe next time you should ask them about the first time they were in love”.
Thinking back on this experience, I realized that by asking about the person’s strengths and weaknesses I was volunteering them to be vulnerable and “naked” in front of us.
While corporate America exudes many admirable virtues, nakedness does not make the short list. But why is that?
The problem with not being open about our weaknesses is that it subconsciously reinforces a fixed mindset, whereby we operate under the assumption that our basic qualities, like talent, intelligence, and efficacy, are simply fixed traits. With this mindset, we live in a cloud of worry that someone will uncover our flaws and think less of us. Negative feedback about certain behaviors is then perceived as negative feedback about ourselves, as the line between “behavior” and “self” becomes blurred. As such, when we refuse to be open about our weaknesses, it reinforces the idea that we are fixed in our abilities and traits.
On the contrary, when we take ownership of our shortcomings we encourage a growth mindset as we see our shortcomings as malleable and able to be improved. One who sees their attributes as a continuous work in progress has less fear of sharing them with others as even if they aren’t perfect today, tomorrow they will be 24 hours the better.
When we are open about our flaws, we leave the door open for development and growth. How can something be improved if not recognized as needing improvement?
Now, I’m not saying that when asked about our weaknesses we should begin saying things like “Well, I am a bad public speaker and I am flakey”. Again, this would reinforce the mindset of “I am my weaknesses”, not to mention open ourselves up to unnecessary criticism. Instead, we should practice saying “Well, I’m working on improving my public speaking abilities, and am training myself to follow through with each task that I am given – and by the way, I’m feeling very good about the progress I have been making”. While not the point of this thesis, I believe this has immediate applications for the inevitable interview question of “what are your greatest weaknesses?”
Regardless of when this is used, the benefits of this type of posturing are clear: a fear of having our faults exposed is replaced by a thirst for improvement.
Our outward comfortability and confidence in this area are inevitably absorbed into our subconscious, leading to a mindset where our flaws become a challenge rather than something we hide. I would invite the reader to experiment with being a little more naked with those we trust, by practicing phrasing weaknesses as areas of improvement.
Who knows, those weaknesses might one day become strengths.
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