"What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?"
It's fair to assume most of us have either been asked this question in a job interview at some point in time, or asked it ourselves. This framing is indicative of how people have historically viewed strengths and weaknesses -- two separate, opposite, and often unrelated categories.
However, I think this perspective is totally outdated. In the knowledge economy, context is everything. There are no 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong answers to any problem -- and this is why "silver bullet" advice doesn't hold much weight.
It's the same with employee performance. "Strengths" and "weaknesses" are simply labels affixed to behaviors -- and the reality is that no behavior is innately good or bad, only effective or ineffective within a certain context.
Here's an example. Let's say I'm a bold, risk taker who makes decisions quickly. This is a fantastic when speed of execution is key and the business has a high tolerance for failure. On the other hand, this exact same approach is outright dangerous when getting it right is much more important than a fast pace -- and a wrong choice could put the company out of business.
So is my rapid decision making a "strength" or a "weakness"? Counterintuitively, it's both, depending on the circumstance. And this is exactly why the labels "strength" and "weakness" don't make sense anymore.
"When are your most natural or strongly expressed behaviors a boon or a liability?"
Instead of treating strengths and weaknesses like a dichotomy, I think of behaviors existing on one single continuum, where the ends represent different contexts. And rather than prompting candidates or employees to reflect on their "strengths and weaknesses" I ask them to think about when their most natural or strongly expressed behaviors are a boon to them, and when they're a liability. When they make them more effective, and when they work against them.
For instance, going back to the above example, my quick decision making is a boon when time is of the essence and we can afford to fall down and get back up. But in scenarios where being deliberate and methodical is critical, it becomes a liability -- and I would need to temporarily temper my natural style to be effective.
With the perspective of "boon or liability?", my behavior is something I can mindfully dial up or dial down depending on the circumstance. I might seek or receive coaching on how to refine any given behavior, but it's not something I have to "fix" about myself.
And this is perhaps the most important reason to move away from the labels "strengths" and "weaknesses:" the value judgment inherent in these words can actively work against creating or reaping the benefits of a diverse team.
The adage "it takes all kinds" is truer than ever in the knowledge economy, so leaders only hurt themselves when they attempt to address an employee's "weakness" -- thus communicating that this behavior is unilaterally frowned upon. Because while it might be inappropriate in Situation A, it could be a complete game changer in Situation B.