IT’S OK TO ADMIT A WEAKNESS
If you’re a high-profile celebrity you probably avoid divulging any of your weaknesses to others. Problem is, for those who live in the clear fishbowl of fame, hiding is tough to do and eventually some embarrassing things can end up on public display. Just ask the partying US swimmers!
If you’re like most of us, however, you live in a more opaque world where it’s easier to hide some of your less desirable traits from others. Still, we bet you have often faced a situation where you wondered, “Should I ‘man up’ here and admit to a shortcoming?”
There’s no hard and fast answer to that question but there are definitely some situations when honesty can serve you well. Of course, we are not advocating that you bare your soul for all to see, but sometimes admitting to a weakness can lead others to evaluate you more favorably.
For example, imagine yourself in a job interview that goes like this:
Interviewer: “This job will require you to stand in front an audience from time to time and speak to them for about 30 minutes. Does that present any problems?”
Now suppose you really do suffer some anxiety when you are in front of an audience. We don’t mean you faint or tremble uncontrollably and have to run out of the room; we simply mean you get nervous, self-conscious, and would prefer not to speak in front of people unless absolutely necessary. With those conditions in mind, let’s consider two possible replies to the interviewer’s question.
Reply A: “Funny you should ask that. I have to give presentations for my present job and the truth is, I do get a little nervous and anxious when I’m speaking in front of people. Because of that, I try to do a lot of preparation. I try to practice and rehearse what I’m going to say. When I really prepare, I find I’m less likely to stutter or forget my train of thought. So as long as I know in advance about having to give a presentation, I would say public speaking is not a major problem for me, although it wouldn’t be my favorite part of the job.”
Reply B: “No, that requirement of the job doesn’t present a problem.”
Are you secure enough to give Reply A, or will you fall back to Reply B and worry about your problem later? You may be really torn here because you figure that if you give Reply A you might not get the job; if you give Reply B and get the job you’re screwed down the road when you have to give those speeches.
In many situations, when it comes to divulging a weakness, honesty is probably the best policy, a statement backed up by a variety of psychological research. For instance, psychologists asked people to evaluate the application of a hypothetical college applicant. For one group of evaluators, the application included statements from both the student and guidance counselor that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better, that in a few courses he simply did not live up to his potential. For a second group of evaluators, no such statements occurred in the application materials. The results showed that evaluators who read that some of the applicant’s grades should have been better actually rated his grades overall more favorably than did evaluators who did not have the negative observation about the grades.
In another interesting study, college students had to read a paragraph and rate it for clarity. For one group, the material was preceded by a statement that the paragraph was somewhat confusing. For two other groups, an identical statement either came after the paragraph or was never given. The results showed that the first group (statement preceding) rated the paragraph as clearer than did the other two groups.
One final study is worth mentioning. Students listened to a taped lecture by a speaker with a heavy Austrian accent. For half the students, before beginning, the speaker admitted that he had a strong accent and hoped the audience could follow him; no such statement occurred for the other half of the listeners. The results showed that the students who heard the apology rated the speaker as clearer, more likeable, and having more years of speaking English than did the students who did not hear an apology.
One thing is very important to note in these studies: admission of a weakness concerning some ability led to more positive evaluations of the individual being described, but the positive evaluation was specific to that ability. For instance, in the college applicant case, whereas grades were judged more favorably when the applicant admitted they weren’t always the best, SAT scores and other measures of performance were not rated more favorably. Similarly, the apologetic Austrian speaker was judged to have more experience with English, but not someone necessarily fluent in other languages. Thus, admitting a weakness is not necessarily going to have someone see you as a better person in general. Therefore, if you’re going to be honest about a weakness, keep it specific to a particular trait or action.
When it comes to managing the impressions that you give off you, keep in mind that whether you’re talking about a group audience, or a one-on-one interview, others will always be influenced by their expectations. You need to look at these times as opportunities to use those pre-existing expectations to your advantage. In a job interview, for example, many interviewers probably expect a candidate to deny weaknesses and shortcomings. Therefore, by admitting to a weakness you are capitalizing by disconfirming the interviewer’s expectation, which might set you apart in a positive way and show your uniqueness.
Furthermore, if you go beyond the simple admission of a weakness and show how you deal with it in a positive way, you transform your weakness into strength. Read reply A again and note how the answer includes initiatives taken to confront and compensate for the weakness. The candidate did not simply say, “I really get anxious when I have to speak in front of others.”
You should also realize that it is not accurate to assume that most people believe that keeping a “stiff upper lip,” and not admitting to weaknesses, is always a good thing. As the studies mentioned show, very often it is the case that admitting weakness is actually perceived as strength. Think about it. Your admission shows that you are not a robot; that being susceptible at times to weakness and mistakes makes you more human; and that you are realistically self-aware and do not see yourself as superior to others.
There are some clear lessons here: a little dose of humility can go a long way. Your honesty may get you that job, or make your audience more receptive. “Thanks for your introduction, Mr. Brown. You make me sound like some kind of expert here, but the truth of the matter is I don’t have all the answers to these complex issues. What I’m going to present today is really a work in progress, and I hope some observations from the audience can help point us in fruitful directions.” Beginning your presentation in such a way shows you are a team player and is likely to make you more likeable right from the start.
–When you admit to a weakness, you are likely to be given a break because of your honesty. Other people have their own personal doubts and weaknesses. When you show some of your own, you become more like them in their eyes, and more likeable.
–Accept who you are; don’t try to present yourself to others as someone different. You will experience much lower stress than if you kid yourself and others about your characteristics.
–You do not need to bare your soul to strangers. But when a situation allows you to be honest about a characteristic, don’t be afraid to admit to it and show how you deal with it.