the contemporary interview


Less like real life and more like science fiction? Interview styles and challenges are changing fast.

EN10 04-03-2016    Author: Philip Wells
Interview styles are profoundly evolutionary. A candidate with an interview style taken from 25 years ago would have nothing of the qualities and levels of information required of a contemporary candidate and would just, well, look strange. What drives interview styles is competition, both between candidates, and their employers. For both, the competition is Darwinian in nature, and can be brutal in its outcomes. The costs of staff turnover are dwarfed by those of having the wrong people in the wrong jobs, where poor candidate selection leads to poor decision-making, increasing over time as the mistakes accumulate. Companies gain a serious edge over competitors by continually updating their selection techniques.

An interview candidate faces three fundamental questions, and how they are employed or mixed depends on the state of advancement of the interview style. The questions are, 1. what do you do?, 2. why do you do it?, and, 3. who are you? Historically, What and Why prevailed, which was a time well before Facebook, when the boundaries between professional and private were much clearer. Today, we are in the age of Who. Never mind what you do or why you think you’re doing it, it’s your identity, and particularly your behaviour, which will decide your professional outcome. You hear people describe particular interview styles as “behavioural”, but in reality all interviews are behavioural, and increasingly so.

The “what” part of the interview is the easiest to answer, and should be apparent in your CV and your previous job-descriptions. The “why” is much more difficult, and relates to your professional values, which are an extension of your personal values.

The “who” answers are the hardest part. The difficulty is summed up in the most difficult interview moment, because it is so absurd: “Now tell me about yourself”. Absurd because identity cannot be expressed in words, and even professional identity, which is the interviewer’s real question, is something very few people can be objective about. It’s a cognitive blind-spot. If listing your personal qualities and stating that you’re a great fit for the job sounds too blandly easy to be credible, that’s because it is. Saying that you’ve dreamt of holding a position as deputy financial controller since your teens can also sound pretty cheesy. Because neither of these responses really implicates you as a human being. But if you start by saying that company finance has interested you since you started to learn about companies, and that liquidity management is where things are really happening, you’re moving in the right direction; and if your behavior, attitude, style of speech, and body language, all say things about you which are consistent with that picture, then your professional profile will acquire substance.
“Now tell me about yourself” is an absurd request... It’s a cognitive blind-spot.

All these aspects of your interview performance have to be consistent. The “what” question may be answered by describing the challenges of your working life. These have to be mutually coherent, as they do with the qualities you’ve described. The “why” question may be answered simply, with what gives you most pleasure in your work, or it may involve past career choices and future ambitions, and these also have to be coherent. And they also have to be consistent with the “who”, your behavior, which is a completely separate level of signalling, because it is non-verbal.

Which explains why there exists a multitude of interview styles today. They go from the traditional general and competency-based interviews, to panel or group interviews, which are designed to test interpersonal skills. There are all kinds of role-play interviews, and yes, there is even the stress interview. It isn’t that interviews are getting more behavioural, but the tools and techniques for eliciting behavioural responses are continually getting better. Many HR managers are trained in psychological assessment, have complex questionnaires at their disposal (don’t lie, because you’ll never be able to track the inconsistencies), and a mix of approaches which they can vary according to the requirements of the position. My own position on this is that any experienced interviewer develops a fine nose for inconsistencies, and that all the real messages come from gut feeling, which is actually limbic system doing its job.

What are the implications for you as candidate? It means that you have to address the blind spots. It means predicting potential interview styles, and mapping the possible responses. It means checking the coherence of your career episodes. It means verifying your perception of your professional past against that of others whose judgement you trust. It means adopting a positive disposition to the interview process, and the ability to adopt your interviewer’s standpoint. It means watching video recordings of your performance, which may prove to be slightly painful, in which case it is certainly worthwhile.

The first-line behavioural response is in attitude and judgement, which means understanding the process and the requirements, and showing in your responses that you’ve understood. Behavioural interviews are contemporary, but they are nothing new. My favourite behavioural style is one of the most traditional in the classification, and still used: the lunch interview. Now who ordered the snails?

(c)  Philip Wells 2015-2016   all rights reserved