Trial by ordeal – The Job Interview

There’s something about job interviews that can provoke an existential crisis, even in completely well-adjusted people. It’s a disruption of the ‘business-as-usual’ world, where we get on with our routines in the belief that we’re competent enough to get our tasks done and more or less handle the people involved. The interview turns all these assumptions upside down. We can find ourselves questioning everything.

This experience seems to apply across situations – whether you’re aiming to get back into work after a long gap, or whether you want to move from one job to another. One relatively recent phenomenon is the request to reapply for the role that you already hold, usually as a result of restructuring. That situation can be the most destabilising of all.

As the interview looms, this sort of thinking may surge up: “I don’t really have what they’re looking for.” Or, “I’ve never done anything like this, why would anyone would take a risk on me?” Or, under different circumstances: “I do this all the time, it’s like breathing, so how can I possibly put it into words?”

This self-questioning leads some potential interviewees to conclude: “The interview process is artificial rubbish anyway.” I suspect we are mentally defending ourselves against the fact that we are about to be judged by people in positions of power.

The interview is a performance in some respects. There may not be a clearly defined script to follow, but it is universally acknowledged that it does help to anticipate questions and compose some self-promoting answers. There is also the matter of being able to make an impact, not just through what you say but also through how you say it. Confidence is key.

The sense of turmoil and insecurity may be unavoidable, but it’s not always fatal. However, it can lead to some people postponing or avoiding essential preparation. And that, actually, is fatal.

So if the interview is a performance, rehearsal may be an effective strategy for making sure that you come across with both substance and style. Role-playing allows you to test out those self-promoting answers with a trusted friend or colleague in the part of the interviewer, and to evaluate how these answers sound out loud. Are you getting your message across? Usually you can trim out some waffle, and make your point more succinctly and effectively.

Storytelling is a key way of engaging your interviewers with what you can do. Scroll through your experience for stories that demonstrate how you’ve met past challenges. Position yourself as the hero or heroine with a difficult problem. Explain what you did to resolve the problem. Take your audience through it, step by step. It’s your actions that matter. You don’t need to be flowery. Just providing a single vivid detail will be effective. You never need to describe yourself as clever, fast-thinking, empathetic, or any other checklist quality that the interviewer is looking for. Let your account of your actions do the work for you. These stories don’t necessarily have to be from your current role, but they should demonstrate skills and qualities that would be transferrable to the job in question.


And now, to a key issue: just because it’s a crafted performance doesn’t mean that it can be inauthentic. In rehearsal, check your own feelings as well as the effect on others. Does what you are saying feel real and genuine? And this is the point where you may need to come to terms with some inner conflict. It’s ok to have uncertainties, but it’s not helpful to let them supress or muddle how you present yourself. Take the opportunity to clarify your values and goals for yourself before stepping in front of the panel. Under scrutiny, your lack of conviction will leak out through non-verbal signals that psychologists call “tells”. People often describe their response to others’ non-verbal signals as having a “gut feeling” about someone, in layman’s terms. Often they can’t articulate what it is exactly that they like or dislike, although the sensation is often immediate and powerful.

Of course, you can find yourself undermined by your non-verbal signals simply because you’re feeling very nervous. This is because you can only have control over your physicality (and the ability to minimise negative tells) if you’re physically relaxed. The most effective method of managing this tension is pausing to breathe out fully. In the Flight or Fight reaction of your body, you may find yourself breathing too fast or shallowly, or even holding your breath. However, if you take back control of your breathing, the body, mind and emotions will follow. Practice this technique regularly beforehand, so it seems natural to use in the interview.

So, how might interviewers respond to different candidates’ behaviour in the heat of the interview? And how might the candidates’ preparation affect the outcomes for them?

An acquaintance of mine, the CEO of a medium-sized not-for-profit organisation, was recruiting for a role. It came down to a choice between two different but outstanding candidates: a black woman and a white man. In the interviews, the female candidate scored well, though the male candidate consistently scored better. However, the CEO had a nagging feeling that he wasn’t the right one for the job. After being consulted, each member of the panel agreed that they felt less than confident that he would deliver well in the role. His range of correct but stock answers didn’t give the panel the insight into his character that they needed. She decided to invite the two candidates back for a further interview each. This time, the panel devised a series of questions they believed would uncover the concerns that they all shared but had found difficult to pin down. The questions called for a deep level of honesty and self-awareness from the candidates, and also tested their commitment to the values of the organisation they wanted to join. One such question was: “Tell us about your main allowable weakness. What would your biggest fan say, and what would your biggest critic say?” What the CEO and panel didn’t want to hear was the standard answer: “I’m a perfectionist.”

The female candidate was hesitant at first. Then she was open that there was a field in which she felt she would need extra training, as her current level of knowledge was probably not yet up to scratch. The male candidate side-stepped the question altogether. He refused to admit to any weakness.

Indeed, the answers to all the questions were eye-opening. Time and time again, the female candidate showed that she had insight into herself. She even identified that she tended to be reserved when under pressure, which matched the panel’s assessment of her. These were the very qualities of self-knowledge and openness that secured her the post.

In fact, the male candidate’s unwillingness to reveal any vulnerability was his most telling flaw. When the CEO rang him to tell him the news he had been unsuccessful, she described his response like this: “His mask dropped.” Unfortunately for him, his willingness to share came too late.

I’m speculating now, but perhaps the different outcomes for the two candidates lay in their different approaches to their preparation.

One approach interpreted self-presentation as striding forth in a suit of armour of ‘right’ answers. Yet for the panel, the candidate’s non-verbal signals were not congruent with his words. What was missing, perhaps, was the candidate’s willingness to relax, possibly because he deemed it too risky to be vulnerable.

The other approach prioritised making a connection over maintaining an iron-clad ‘ideal’ appearance, even though the candidate’s natural reserve made this an effort.

So this makes me wonder: what if having a pre-interview mental struggle could bring us closer to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of what it is that we want from our working lives? What if this struggle is a necessary preliminary step for harnessing our vulnerability, and finding a way of connecting honestly with an interview panel composed of individuals, each of whom are genuinely committed to choosing the right person?

Of course you need to demonstrate to the panel that you are professionally suited to the role. You need to tick as many boxes for them as you can. No responsible interviewer will choose a likeable but incompetent candidate without discernable potential. However, the dynamic between you is a significant factor. After all, they will have to work with you, and probably spend a huge amount of time in your company. A little soul-searching can go a long way to help you connect with the interviewers, even within the formal parameters of the job interview.

And that, perhaps, might allow us to see some sort of purpose to the unwelcome and discomforting existential crisis, and to trust that we’ll get through to the other side.


Use this checklist to help you work through your preparation in a structured way:

Why do you want this job? Think hard about all the reasons that you’re going for this challenge. You will want to share some of your reflections with your interviewers, but not necessarily all of them.

Who are your interviewers? What do you know about their particular agendas and expectations?

… And who do they expect to see when you walk into the room? Which assumptions about you do you want to encourage, and which do you want to pre-empt and discourage?

What key messages about your qualities and skills do you want to get across? Rather than list your attributes and skills, prepare some stories that demonstrate how you’ve met past challenges.

Where is the interview taking place? The environment of the interview will affect the dynamic between you and your interviewers. Remember that you have choices in how you respond to it.

When is the interview? The timing will also affect the dynamic. Be aware how both your interviewers’ and your own energy may be affected, and be prepared to adjust accordingly.

How do you want to present yourself? Make sure that you keep yourself as relaxed and focused as possible during the interview. Pausing to breathe and think will help.