You've heard of the interview question "what's your greatest weakness?", so you know there must be some interest in this self-awareness thing when it comes to interviewing. Self-awareness is important in interviews, sometimes it's more important than other times (whether the job involves teamwork or inspiring followership, for example). And it's not just being self-aware that is important but also the willingness to talk about it. OK, so a few thoughts:

The "what's your greatest weakness?" question...ugh

Personally, I think it's a pretty light-weight recruiting tactic; not particularly sophisticated at that. Having said that, I have lobbed this softball over the plate a few times myself (hey, there's always room for improvement). Obviously, the goal of this question is to assess self-awareness. The problem is that, first, people see this question coming from a mile away so even the least self-aware has a fluffy answer all ready to go. Also, I think that self-awareness is one of those qualities that is best observed in the context of other questions versus just asking about it ("what was challenging about that project?", "why did you find that challenging?", "what new skills did you need to develop?", "tell me about the most frustrating times at work", "tell me about situations where you have had to engage others outside your work group for help" etc., etc.). If you want someone to tell you about what they are not good at, you at least have to dig for it a bit...it's only fair. Also people fear this question. Do they take the risk to give a real answer? Do they give a fluff answer and see if the interviewer notices? How uncomfortable.

What is self-awareness at it’s best?

A combination of humility and confidence with details to back it up. This means that it’s not just about how the interviewee feels at any given moment, but how they are perceived and how they translate their feelings and signals from others into actions. I guess what I mean by this is that it’s not enough to be aware, you have to be proactive, reactive…just do something productive with the information. And yes, it’s OK to have feelings at work.

You take the good, you take the bad

I know that this is going to come as a surprise to you…please don’t think less of Microsoft. We don’t hire *perfect* people (if you’ve met me you have your proof). This isn’t a Stepford Company. Going into any interview situation, you have to be thinking about the fact that people are analyzing you; the good and the bad. A little well-articulated self-awareness is going to allow you to address your areas for personal development (gotta love the euphemisms!). Better to address them than to have the interviewer wonder if you even know about them (trust me, they will find some areas for personal development during the interview). And guess what, not knowing what you need to work on is actually something you would need to work on (if you know what I mean).

What's more important: being a know-it-all or knowing how to work well with others?

That's a loaded question. It's rare that an interviewer would expect you to know everything about a given subject (it's rare that an interviewer knows everything about a given subject). As someone who has interviewed many, many people, I can tell you that knowing how to tap into the strengths of peers is a huge asset. Knowing where to go to find information is a huge asset. Knowing what you don't know is a huge asset. So admitting, in the course of an interview, that you weren't the only one that took credit for a project or that you weren't the only person responsible for it's success, that you received help from others; that's a good thing. If in the interview, you are being considered for any kind of lead or manager role (in the immediate future or ever, really), then you are going to *have to* get OK with tooting other peoples' horns (not to mention adding more cow bell). And if the team you are interviewing with is a high performing team, you better get good at it from the get-go. They key is to ensure that you are pulling your weight relative to others and accurately assessing team member strengths with respect to work needs. It's not that you need over-shadow co-workers. At least that is how I (and many other smart interviewers) think about it.

What are your references going to say?

References are probed for both strength and weakness areas and the people checking references know how to read between the lines ("Oh, he works best independently? Why is that?") and to take into account what is not being said. Also consider that after you have joined a new company, unofficial references can come out of the woodwork via networking relationships. You don't want your new employer to feel that you weren't perfectly up-front with them about the areas that you need to work on. Also, if your new employer's culture isn't particularly tolerant of your style (being very direct, for example, not that I have any personal experience with being direct...hee!), then maybe it's best to get it out on the table before you join and save yourself the trouble of joining a group that's not going to take to your style well. Bad team or culture fits are painful for everyone involved (not that teams can't flex for individual styles, but there are simply some traits that upset some team dynamics).

 A matter of personal maturity

I find that mature people, mature leaders particularly, are very self-aware. Part of this may be hearing and acknowledging feedback from others over a period of time. I can't be the only one that notices how often great leaders are described as "humble". Some people are born that way (not me!) and some learn it by having their neck stepped on a few times (that sounds familiar!). At the end of the day, a lack of self-awareness signals one of several things. It could be a lack of depth (the person hasn't thought about their weaknesses and how they are perceived) which could be a rookie mistake (hopefully they grow out of it). It could be that they are aware but they refuse to do anything about it (these folks are nothing but fun, fun, fun!). Or it could be a sign of insecurity, of over-compensating, of feeling like a fraud and being afraid that the world is going to figure it out. Oh heck, it could be a combination of these things.

Of course anyone could make the mistake of not thinking through the importance of self-awareness in an interview situation and not being prepared to address it in the interview. Well, not any of my blog readers but possibly some other people.

Thanks to John Cass for the fodder