Interviewing: Being Your Authentic Self

I often hear of applicants studying to interview. Someone saw your resume or application and they like your experience. You have been contacted and are scheduled for your first interview. You look great on paper! Now you just need to prepare so you can look and sound great in person. There are many blog posts, resources, books, workshops, and apps out there to help you prepare for an interview. They may give you a list of common interview questions, explain how to identify and answer behavioral questions, scenario questions and questions about your knowledge. Some of them even help you with presence and give tips for keywords to use when speaking to the recruiter and hiring manager. You find some of these and take their advice. You’re ready and nothing is going to stop you now!

When the time comes, you freeze. The anxiety is too much and although you know the answers to the questions they are asking, you start to speak and trip over your words, or you start to answer the question and just as you’re about to make your point, you forget what the interviewer asked. Maybe you are nervous and talk so much you forgot what they asked. Perhaps they asked you a question and you have no idea what they are talking about. Was this covered in the countless blogs, books, workshops, and apps you used to prepare for this interview? You’re shuffling through the depths of your brain to find one nugget of information you learned from all the time and energy you spent preparing for this moment. You can’t find it and you cave. You say something to answer the question and then try to get through the rest of the questions to the best of your ability. After the interview is over, you think of all these amazing things you could have or should have said. Maybe you can remember one of those amazing things if you are ever asked that question again. A day or two later you get the email. They have chosen another candidate. You’re not surprised but you were still hoping you were the best, or only, interview they had.

Why does this happen? Why do we crack under pressure over a few questions about a job we know we are qualified to do? Obviously, it’s psychological, right? But why? You know exactly about a time you had to work with someone who was difficult. It was Kathy, two years ago, on the customer experience project and she believed if you changed the scripting for the salespeople, they would be confused because they have always used that scripting. Her resistance was so strong, the project took three extra months because you had to run a two-month pilot to prove the script changes would be successful. Why couldn’t you think of that example? Why couldn’t you think to follow that story up with what you learned from that experience, and how you learned to avoid conflicts and keep projects on time using that experience? Why did you say, “I get along with everyone, so I can’t really think of a time I worked with someone difficult.”? But it’s true, right? You do get along with everyone. People love to work with you because you’re fun and full of ideas, or because you get things done quickly, or because you’re motivating, or because you have so much experience, you can use past lessons learned and apply them to new projects. And you love working with a team or the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a project or meeting a goal.

But that’s not the right answer. It’s true, but it’s not what the interviewer asked. They are looking for how you overcome challenges, how you handle conflict and how you work with others.  

If you were talking to a friend about work and taking turns telling each other about a time you both had to deal with difficult people or situations, you could tell them so many stories and experiences, and how you would apply them to projects in a new role. So why do you have so much trouble answering the same questions in an interview?

It’s simple. You are nervous. You want or need this new job so badly and the anxiety and nervousness creeps in and grows like the greed in Gollum, until your interview date. It takes over your words and makes you say things you don’t mean or want to say. It blinds you from answering questions completely and forces you to paint a “perfect” picture of yourself.  By saying you get along with everyone, or that you’ve never made a mistake at work, you think you look like a dream. You think if you get along with everyone and never make mistakes, the hiring manager will see rays of light beaming behind you as you walk in slow motion down the hallway.

Employers don’t want the perfect candidate. They want the right candidate. They want someone who can make mistakes, quickly recover and learn from them. They want adaptability and resiliency. They may also want someone who has already made mistakes and can apply their experience to prevent them in the future.

So how do you avoid the nervousness? Those books, blogs, workshops and apps gave you pre-interview tips, right? They told you to practice with a friend, research what interview questions they may ask, take deep breaths, take a walk before your interview to clear your head, meditate, and the list goes on. These are all great tips and if one works for you, do it. But the real way to shake the nerves is to be yourself. Please don’t take this as advice to disregard preparing for an interview. You will need to prepare for the interview, and depending on how important it is to you, you may need to prepare a lot. Talk to the interviewer as though you are talking to a friend about the problems and how you would overcome and correct them. Before the interview think of a few challenging experiences you’ve had in your career, or even in your personal life, how you overcame them, what you learned from them and how you recovered. Follow up with how you would be able to apply that to some of the items listed in the job description.  But don’t lose yourself in the interview. You don’t want to paint a picture of yourself as a unicorn with rainbow wings flying over the organization, sprinkling perfection glitter on everything. Not only is that not you, but it’s no one.  

Sometimes interviewers may ask you questions about your personal life. Things like “What do you do in your spare time?”, “What are your hobbies?”, etc.  I have heard comments about these questions from interviewees who felt like they were being judged based on their hobbies, or if they said they have certain hobbies they would not be offered the job.

The interviewer is not asking about your hobbies so they can judge you. They are simply asking this to get to know you better. They could be asking because they want to see if you have anything in common with other team members. Sometimes this is the last question in the interview and sometimes it’s the first. If this is the first question, they are using this to break the tension and make you feel more comfortable. It’s perfectly fine to ask them the same thing, or to counter with your answer and ask them if they have ever done something similar. Afterall, that’s what you would do if you were having a conversation with someone, right?

Sometimes when you answer this question, you may get responses like “Oh that is interesting.”. That doesn’t mean anything other than that the interviewer doesn’t know anything about that hobby. If this happens, tell a short two or three sentence story or fact about your hobby. It helps connect you with you the interviewer, makes you relatable, shows that you can read others, and tells them who you are outside of work.

The next time you interview, remember to connect with the interviewer as your true self. Read the room, even if it’s a virtual room. Take queues from their comments, ask them questions and try to talk to them as though you are collaborating with co-workers or chatting with friends.

Best of luck in your next endeavor!


Check out my other blog posts.

Career Selection: What to do when you don't know what you want to do

Becoming a Top Performer at Work

What is a Lateral Move?

Burnout: My Story and Suggestions for Prevention

Is a Side Hustle Worth It?

Check out my Free Resources page

Check out my Continuous Learning page where I recommend professional development books, and provide a list of audio books I am listening to this year.

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