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Pushing Back on Canned Answers in the Interview

NEWSLETTER • volume 2 • number 5

Interviewers are increasingly confronted with candidates who are expert at dodging the most well-aimed interrogative bullets. Supposedly sure-fire questions like "What was your biggest failure in your previous job?" bounce harmlessly off these applicants. Part of the problem is that pat questions elicit pat answers. But many job seekers can sidestep even penetrating queries because they've been coached by outplacement specialists in how to "neuter the interview."

According to an article in the New York Times, job gurus advise their clients to avoid revealing anything unflattering or personal. The result? Thousands of executives now approach interviews armed with an arsenal of slick, self-serving responses. To deflect the "what was your biggest failure" question, for example, many candidates use the following:

1. "I'm so focused on pushing projects to completion it puts me out of step with managers who take more of a laissez-faire approach."
2. "I don't allow myself to be sidetracked. That sometimes ruffles feathers."
3. "I was too aggressive in pursuing company goals."

Faced with seemingly impenetrable defenses like these, some managers have surrendered, writing off the evaluation interview as a waste of time. But others are fighting back. These savvy managers are taking the neuter out of the interview and putting the punch back in. The key is finding a way to make the "neuter answer" backfire. Some examples:

Responses to #1: "Are you telling me you are the only manager who pushes projects to completion?" Or, "Why do you care if you are out of step with laissez-faire managers? Don't you have higher standards?" Or, "Are you also out of tune with your own team members?"

Responses to #2: "Whose feathers would be ruffled?" Or, "If you focus so much on results, how would you handle a subordinate whose attention was distracted on a project by a major family illness?"

Responses to #3: "What were the consequences of your aggression?" Or, "If you couldn't control your aggression in your previous job, why should we believe you could handle it now?" Or, "It sounds like you believe the end justifies the means."

We don't think an interview should resemble the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, but neither should it lack personality and candor. Smart managers can get at the candidate hiding behind the "neutered" response by turning dull answers into dynamite questions.