“I don’t know what happened. I thought the interview went great. The interviewer even told me I did a great job. Something unfair must be going on.”
I’ve heard that story more than a few times. Many readers will have at least heard it from a friend if not also having lived it themselves. So how is it that so few companies are both competently executing their recruiting processes and are genuine in their feedback? Or should we really be asking “Why do so many candidates get their self-assessments of interviews so wrong?”
My guess is the latter, but let’s talk about it.
It may be your ego lying, not the company
Great strides have been made by most companies to eliminate racism, sexism and illegal discrimination from organizations. While there are still elements of nepotism, cronyism and unconscious bias that taint some decisions, these unfortunate pollutants to decision-making are fortunately now rare exceptions, not normal behaviors.
Whether missing out on a job for objectively fair or inappropriate reasons, the news will inevitably be a blow to your ego. The severity of that blow is generally a function of how surprising the news is and how much personal responsibility you take for the outcome. Agree with the lack of fit or believe you gave the best interview you are capable of and the sting is likely small. However, disagree with the outcome and don’t understand the origins of the decision and that sting grows.
As a candidate, it can become convenient to deflect blame towards an assumed “unfair” process to protect your ego. Focusing on a what may look like a white lie or developing a story around sinister behaviors can deflect your attention away from the inconvenient reality that you were not the best candidate.
Maybe your ego is in check, but are your ears turned on?
But what about when a company tells you that you were great? Were they lying just to avoid disappointing me in person? Or did something change after you left the meeting?
Probably neither. Sure, some interviewers prefer to keep positive easy over risking an uncomfortable conversation relating a less than positive assessment, however, I find that most of the time when this happens a candidate had heard what he/she wanted to hear from the recap, not what was really said.
For example, having an interview go well is not the same thing as being a great fit for the position. The measuring sticks are different. You can be pleasant, articulate, thoughtful, poised, prepared and deliver elegantly phrased answers making you a great interviewer and still not the best fit for the job. Similarly, you could be disheveled, unprepared and awkward in the interview yet establish yourself as the best fit for the job IF you really are the best fit for the job. Being a great fit and being a great interviewer are two DIFFERENT things.
While it is rare to land a job without both giving a good interview and being a great fit for the job, the latter is far more important, but also far less likely to be discussed at the end of the interview. Determining somebody gave a great interview relies only on the experience in the interview. Determining fit requires more data than just the interview.
So, if I can’t measure my performance based on the outcome or verbal feedback, how do I know what to keep doing and what to change?
First, think about the non-verbal communication that you receive from the interviewer. It’s commonly understood that 93% of communication between humans is nonverbal. If you only pay attention to the 7% that comes from the interviewer’s mouth, you’re likely to 1) not get the whole story and 2) not be interviewing effectively in the first place. Watch body language and intonation for signs of excitement and connection and for suggestions of disengagement. When an interviewer stops making eye contact, starts fidgeting or turns their body away from you, you are probably missing the mark. Start to hear their voice flatten and you might be losing their interest.
If you can’t recall the nonverbal communication in a recent interview, then you were probably too focused on yourself in the interview. Because most jobs involve collaboration with others and active listening (the kind of listening that will allow you to observe ALL aspects of communication), they are likely to be sensitive to YOUR listening. Even if they aren’t specifically evaluating your listening skills, these skills are important for establishing rapport and building a relationship with your interviewer.
Second, let the interviewer do his/her job. Fight your tendency to share every cool thing you think might impress an interviewer and trust them to ask the questions that will get them the information they want. This is called an interview, not a monologue, for good reason. So instead of trying to run the interview, really listen to the interviewer. Give them direct, concise answers. Let them ask for more of what they want and don’t overwhelm this with noise they don’t need.
Finally, don’t wait until after the interview to adjust your approach. Every interviewer has a different style and slightly different interests. Pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal aspects of your interviewer’s interaction. Listen very carefully during the interview to the specifics of what is said. If you find that there are frequent long pauses between questions, add more details to your answers. If it feels like there are a lot of significant changes in topics rather than a smooth flow, shorten your answers. Likewise, if you sense the interviewer wanting to interject, but not wanting to interrupt, become more concise and targeted with your answers.
What’s right for one interview may not be exactly right for another, but unless you guess correctly from the first word, you’re better off finishing strong after a rocky start than struggling throughout due to inflexibility. If you finish an interview not having a good idea of how well it went, then you probably didn’t listen enough and probably didn’t do as well as you could have.