the risk in not taking risks

















 

















Can there be such a thing as a riskless interview? If you ever wondered if this could be done just by answering what you think your interviewer most wants to hear, here’s the catch.


EN7 18-01-2016  Author: Philip Wells
 
The story is anecdotal: after a good start in the interview, a graphic design candidate is shown an expensive video presentation on the company’s future marketing campaign. Present are the HR representative and the marketing design manager. At the end of the presentation, she leaves a long pause before announcing her decision to withdraw her application: the graphic style and the segment targeting of the new campaign don’t correspond to the market, which she knows because it is exactly her age group. And she goes as far as to outline the campaign, in terms of graphic style, of the values they imply, and the suppositions which can be inferred. At the time, there is no visible reaction from either of her interviewers, but a few days later, she receives an invitation to a second interview.

I like this story not just for its legendary quality, but also for its core of truth. During the second interview, the candidate learns that the campaign proposals shown to her in the first interview had been chosen with the aim of provocation, to elicit exactly the reaction she had shown. The marketing manager explains that the job isn’t just a design challenge, but a communication challenge. Having the answer isn’t enough; you also have to be able to transmit it, even when you think the wind is blowing against you.
The candidate’s response to the situation is text-book. The question is, was she taking any unnecessary risks in politely telling her interviewers that their campaign plans were just, well, misconceived? The answer is no, or at least not as soon as she’d realized that there wasn’t any other choice. Was she wrong in making herself so visible? Again, the answer is, no. Declaring that you want to withdraw your application is dramatic, and the candidate knew she had centre-stage, so she seized the opportunity to define herself.

The risk, of course, is in the degree of contact. For quality of contact, measured self-exposure is essential. One way or another, you have to show yourself, and to demonstrate your single-mindedness. I mean this in the purist sense of having a coherent vision of yourself, and being able to show your interviewer that you have drive, determination, and conviction. These three characteristics are not requirements of every job, but they are prerequisites for any work which requires judgement and discretionary authority. Of course, nothing seems easier at first than the decision that you will do your utmost to find the right chemistry with your interviewer. And having done so, are you then going to take any risks that might jeopardise that glow of empathy you’d so much like to leave behind?

So yes, one of the top five commandments of interviews is “thou shalt not take unnecessary risks”. The problem is that you can quickly lose yourself in the varying interpretations of “unnecessary”, only to end up as an edited, lite version of yourself. An extension of this problem is what to do with the things you might not care to admit except as weaknesses: a missed deadline, a difficult working relationship with a
colleague, or boredom in your current job. None of these sound very attractive, but what if the missed deadline led to improvements in preferred supplier arrangements, the difficult working relationship had been there for some time, and successfully managed, and that the boredom stems from the fact that you’re a very fast learner and you need challenge?

The point is that apparent failings rarely come without redeeming strengths. An apparently less than brilliant episode or project from the candidate’s career history only has its place if something productive came out of it, which is usually the case. But if it was productive in a personal rather than a professional way, then it should be used judiciously in the interview. If you ended up arm-wrestling with your boss, and lost, because you had a different vision of things, then that vision deserves to be given space in some form in the interview,
if without reference to your boss. Even if the product was what you learned, it shows reflectiveness and the ability to face events.

So yes, one of the top five commandments of interviews is “thou shalt not take unnecessary risks”. The problem is that you can quickly lose yourself in interpreting what might be “unnecessary”, only to end up as an edited, lite version of yourself.


The point is that failings rarely come without redeeming strengths. An apparently less than brilliant episode or project from the candidate’s career history only has its place if something productive came out of it, which is usually the case. But if it was productive in a personal rather than a professional way, then it should be used judiciously in the interview. If you ended up arm-wrestling with your boss, and lost, because you had a different vision of things, then that vision deserves to be given space in some form in the interview, even without reference to your boss. Even if the product was what you learned, it shows reflectiveness and the ability to face events.

This kind of territory is full of risks. You might be demonstrating some excellent qualities which, in the right doses, are necessary for your credibility, but how certain can you be that your interviewer will like the result, the vision, or the moral or technical conclusion you drew? You cannot limit that risk. But think of what is certainly a greater risk, which is universal among competitive job interviews, which consists of giving in to formulaic responses and disappearing into the gray majority of candidates who have decided to take the easy route and do exactly the same thing. The life-changing nature of interviews, and the hopes which often hang on them, tend to diminish our taste for risk, but to forge a real contact with the interviewer, you will have, in precise and selected ways, to put yourself on the line.



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