A second edition of my book What’s Stopping You? is due for release this month. In it I add 19 case studies of people impacted by fear of failure, detailing their – mostly successful – attempts at overcoming the self-imposed barriers to their success.
What’s this got to do with recruiters? Rather a lot, actually, as job interviews provide perhaps the easiest opening for that most acute trait of the fear of failure sufferer: self-sabotage. And it’s here where some of my case studies are focused.
Take David, someone who approached me shortly after publication of the first edition. He claimed to have a “degree in self-sabotage”. Yet he was outwardly successful, with a PhD in computer science and a 20-year career in IT. Rather than focus on these achievements, however, he dismissed them in favour of a negative internal assessment in which others took pity on him or that, out of fear, he was the only person willing to do the job.
“I literally have a person inside me working against my own success,” he wrote.
And this most often revealed itself when interviewing for a new role. He claimed that he would “telescope” his perceived weaknesses to the interviewer.
“I noticed that I was advertising my weaknesses by starting statements like ‘one thing you should know is that I’m not particularly good at...’,” he said. “Although it seems bizarre in hindsight, I was unaware I was doing this at first. On reflection I realised it was my fear of potentially being humiliated that led me to literally hand the interviewers a guide to my perceived shortcomings.”
Of course, his awareness of this was a major step forward. As with my own experiences – going out of my way to detail my deficiencies to a national newspaper editor, for instance – it’s such an obvious clanger for insecure people (in hindsight at least) that we can train ourselves not to do it when being interviewed.
Less easy to navigate, however, are the traps deliberately laid by interviewers for the interviewee to fall into, perhaps to reveal a weakness or CV falsehood. Here, the “telescope” – as David called it – has been reversed. Their questions are aimed at minutely studying the interviewee’s responses, not least to see whether one of their traps has been triggered.
Again, awareness is the key. Seeing the traps ahead should allow them to be avoided. Yet some traps are more clearly visible than others. An obvious example of my own involved a mass interview for a sales post. We were all asked to offer our most disabling characteristic: the one most likely to hinder our progress in the role. Others pointed to their lack of confidence, or shyness, while I – spotting such a conspicuous snare – told them I was perhaps too argumentative: cue tuts and head-shaking from the other candidates who knew that, for a sales job, I’d offered a strength rather than a weakness.
“Just because someone hands you a gun,” I said when approached afterwards by an irate fellow interviewee, “it doesn’t mean you have to shoot yourself.” (In fact, this may have been one of those lines delivered in the recall of the event, rather than the actual – but why let reality spoil strong dialogue?)
Of course, many of the traps are a lot more subtle. For instance, in Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Kogan Page 2001), Martin John Yate outlines questions that graduates may be asked that are not what they seem, as well as how best to sidestep the traps while remaining onside. These include:
1) What are your least favourite chores? The interviewer is trying to assess your maturity with respect to undertaking the sometimes mundane tasks involved in execution. Yate recommends saying: “Every position has ups and downs, but I acquired valuable skills even from routine tasks.”
2) How did you choose your university? Fluffed replies will be on soft issues such as it being local or because your friends were attending. Your selection was course based, you should say, preparing for future employment.
3) How did you pay for tuition? A tough one these days, but avoid revealing a reliance on the 'Bank of Mum and Dad'.
Further up the experience ladder, Ron Fry’s book Ask the Right Questions, Hire the Best People (McGraw Hill 2000) is incredibly helpful despite being written from the interviewer’s perspective. Fry offers questions aimed at getting the interviewee on the back foot. For instance, in what he calls 'Advanced Questioning' (to reveal a candidate’s attitude and personality) he suggests interviewers should ask a candidate to describe their best and worst boss. A smart candidate will (lo and behold) describe a best boss very much like the interviewer.
Meanwhile, a deeper probe on the same topic may involve the interviewer asking what could have been done to improve relations with a bad boss, which is perhaps a chance for the candidate to show themselves as a good communicator with a desire to take responsibility. What it is not, is an opportunity to attack a former boss, despite the careful crafting of the question in order to tempt you.
Candidates may also be asked about competitors, which could reveal whether they are genuinely interested in the sector or are simply going through the motions before deciding once an offer’s made. Another trap-strewn line of enquiry involves asking what skills the interviewee wants to develop, and why, which is no more than a subtle version of the “where do you want to be in five years’ time?” query. Again, they are trying to calculate whether your objectives are aligned with the company’s.
A further area involves your current job. For instance, interviewers may wonder about your prospects should you stay. “Why not stay and shine?” they may ask. Indeed, they’ll be curious to discover whether you are a “runaway” a tag that tends to encourage the prefix “serial”.
For Fry, anyone going negative at this point (either directly or indirectly) may be revealing problem attitudes that could be repeated in a new employment. A savvy interviewee will handle any discontent very gingerly, he says, and focus instead on a desire for more responsibility, more knowledge and the great opportunities offered by your company and this job.
One last Fry-inspired trick question worth dealing with: “Where does your boss think you are right now?” Wrong answers include anything that has stolen company time. Holidays or personal days are fine, as are lunch hours or after/before-work interviews (although less so).
Finally, and from my own experience, there are the questions that reveal the interviewer’s vanity. These are perhaps the most difficult to deal with because there’s no right answer – the hapless interviewee is supposed to end up looking foolish in order to make the interviewer look good.
This is the white collar equivalent of the “glass hammer” or “spotted paint” trick for building-site rookies. For instance, when I was a financial journalist our magazine had a favourite (and rather topical) question for our green-tinged interviewees.
“What’s Libor?” we used to ask.
About half responded saying they had no idea, which was a poor answer for a prospective writer on high-finance. But about half would, indeed, offer what they thought was the correct answer: the “London Interbank Offered Rate”.
“Noooo,” we’d smugly cry. “What is it?
The answer we were looking for was, of course, “0.5% for three-month dollars”, or some such, but it was a nonsense question aimed at making us look in tune with the market while they looked foolish. That said, it almost certainly achieved the opposite because the only answer they could offer that had them viewed favourably was an awkward laugh and a nod to our superiority. God forbid that someone told us the actual rate: we’d have run a mile from such a know-all!
Robert Kelsey is author of What’s Stopping You? Why Smart People Don’t Always Achieve Their Potential and How You Can – Capstone £10.99