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3 Questions Hiring Managers Want You to Answer

Interviews have an outsize influence on whether you land the job you want. Even though your application materials reflect your lifetime of experience, a few hours of interaction with a recruiting team often ends up being the determining factor in whether you actually get hired. So, clearly you need to stand out.

To do that, it helps to be mindful of what recruiters and hiring managers are trying to accomplish with the interview and prepare accordingly. Below are three of the questions they want answered and advice on how to address them.

“What will it be like to work with you?”

People can’t know from your résumé or cover letter what it will be like to have you work for them. You want to demonstrate to your prospective employer that you will be a valuable colleague and someone with whom they will enjoy interacting. That means that a lot of what will determine the success of the interview is social. Yes, you need to be knowledgeable about your field, but you also need to help people envision you as a member of the team.

One mistake job hunters often make is to treat interviews like exams — ones that they hope to ace, or at least not bomb. The problem with this framing is that it assumes the interviewer is doing an assessment and looking for a correct answer, which can lead people to subconsciously slip into a too-adversarial stance or work too hard to reply with what they think their counterparts want to hear.

If you instead think about interviewers as people looking to find potential colleagues, and the conversation as an opportunity for everyone to get to know one another, the relationship changes. You and the recruiter or hiring manager share the same goal, and your meeting becomes a joint problem-solving effort: Do we want to work together? You will probably display your expertise as you chat, but you will also be demonstrating your ability to establish a rapport.

Another benefit to this approach is that it encourages greater synchronization between your and the interviewer’s brains. This is something that happens in most conversations. People speak quickly to transmit information in a timely fashion, and your brain, to better understand what they are telling you, predicts the words, grammatical structure, and tone of voice they will use. In a positive, engaging conversation, you mirror those elements of speech back to them, and vice versa. A wonderful paper by Martin Pickering and Simon Garrod summarizes how this happens.

If you treat your interviewer the way you would a trusted colleague — smiling, leaning forward, talking in a friendly way with energy and enthusiasm, and making eye contact — they should begin to use the same language mechanisms they already use with their favorite people in the workplace, and begin to think of you as someone who belongs at the organization too.

“Can you learn?”

You probably have the basic skill set required to do the job for which you are applying, but you’ll also need to learn as you go. (And if you’re completely prepared for the role, you probably set the bar too low.) How can you demonstrate that you’re willing and able to learn?

Chances are that there will be at least one question during the interview that you are not entirely sure how to answer. Maybe it is framed in a confusing way, so you’re not sure what’s being asked. It might use unfamiliar terms. Or you might understand the question completely but have no idea what to say. Don’t be tempted to bluff your way through an answer. Good interviewers can smell a phony response. (They probably hear a lot of them.)

Instead, admit that there is something you do not know or understand. A number of organizational behavior researchers have found that people don’t like to admit ignorance because they are concerned that it will make them look weak. But interviewers want to see that potential employees will ask questions, seek additional information, give more informed responses, and show initiative in developing themselves. And as studies have shown, you cannot ask for help unless you first let other people know what you do and do not know.

When you’re stumped by a question, ask for clarification. Rephrase the question or suggest a couple of possible interpretations. If you’re still not sure how to proceed after they’ve responded, explain that you haven’t encountered this issue before.

If the question that brings you up short involves addressing a scenario from the workplace, ask the interviewer whether you should think through the question aloud so that they can see how you work on new problems, or if they would like to talk with you about how this issue is normally handled within the organization (or both). Your goal here is to show the interviewer how you approach challenges while demonstrating that you are open to learning.

Another way to show that you intend to keep expanding your skills and knowledge is to ask about continuing education opportunities. Does the company routinely offer internal classes or seminars? Does it have tuition assistance or another benefit that allows you to take classes or certificate programs? Inquiring about these resources makes it clear that you are interested in further development.

“Do you take initiative?”

Interviewers want self-starters who take initiative (so much so that it’s become a cliché). The best way to demonstrate your effort and commitment is to arrive completely prepared. You should have a very clear idea of what the company does, its history, its strengths, and its weaknesses. If you know people who work for the company (or have worked there in the past), ask them for inside information.

Then, prepare for the interview by practicing your answers to common interview questions. There is a big danger in what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil call “the illusion of explanatory depth,” or our tendency to believe we understand the world better than we actually do. In studies, these researchers found that people had difficulty explaining devices and routines in which they thought they had expertise. Thus, going into an interview, most of us might assume we can effectively describe key aspects of our work and how it relates to our prospective employers. However, in the moment, we can’t.

That is why practice is so important. It helps you to notice gaps in your knowledge while you still have an opportunity to fill them and to recognize places where you stumble, so you can say it the right way when the time comes.

One reason people don’t practice interview answers is they worry that overpreparing will make them sound rehearsed rather than spontaneous. But you will probably get several unanticipated questions, so there will be ample opportunity to show off your improvisational skills. In addition, your preparation for the interview will be noted, and that will count significantly in your favor. So, don’t skimp on getting ready.

No matter how qualified you are for a position or how prepared you are for the interview, you still might not get the job. If you feel that you developed a good rapport with the interviewer, reach out and ask for feedback. When you make this connection, focus the conversation on what you can do to improve your interview performance. Don’t ask the company to justify why you didn’t get the job.

Ultimately, the best way to stand out in interviews is to think carefully about what prospective employers really want to know about you before you are hired. From there, you will be able to address concerns before they even have them.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career(HBR Press).

 

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How People with Different Conflict Styles Can Work Together

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When it comes to conflict, most of us have a default approach: we either tend to avoid it or seek it out. The avoiders among us shy away from disagreements, value harmony and positive relationships, and will often try to placate people or even change the topic. Avoiders don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or disrupt team dynamics. Seekers (and I’m one of them!) seem eager to engage in disagreements. They tend to care about directness and honesty, lose their patience when others aren’t being equally direct, and don’t mind ruffling feathers.

Neither style is better or worse, and your default style is probably due to several factors: your past experiences with conflict, the conventions of the culture you’re from or work in, the organizational context, and even gender norms. And while each of us generally has a preferred approach, it’s rare for a person to avoid or seek out conflict all the time. More likely, you adjust your style based on the context, with whom you’re having the conflict, and other things going on in your office. For example, you might be a seeker with your mom and an avoider with your boss.

 Still, it’s useful to know what your natural tendency is and, when you get into a conflict with someone else, to put some thought into the other person’s style. If you’re a seeker and the other person is an avoider, how should you handle the situation? And is all hope of reaching a resolution lost if you’re both avoiders?

Knowing how the other person typically reacts in a tense situation is useful information. So assess your coworker’s style, if you’re not already familiar with it. Consider whom you’re dealing with. How does he typically communicate and how does he prefer to be communicated with? Is she more of a straight shooter who tells it like it is, or does she tend to beat around the bush? If you frequently work with the person you’re having the conflict with, you may already be familiar with their style. If you rarely interact with the person, you’ll have to do some digging. It may be that you’re fighting with an overseas colleague whom you see in person only at annual meetings, or your conflict may be with a manager in a different department who sits in another building. It’s best to know something about the person rather than fighting in a vacuum.

Here are a few ways to assess the other person’s style:

Look for patterns. Whether or not you know your counterpart well, play the role of observer. Ho do they handle a tense discussion in a meeting? What’s the look on their face when other people are disagreeing? Do they like people to cut to the chase and lay out just the facts or do they want the complete picture with every gory detail? What have you observed about their communication style?

Get input from others. You might ask a colleague or two for input into your coworker’s personality. Don’t go around grilling others about them, but ask people to confirm or deny your own observations. Say something like, “I noticed Jim flew off the handle in that meeting. Is that typical?” or “I saw Katerina avoid engaging with Tomas when he questioned whether her figures were right. Did you see the same thing?” Obviously, you have to trust the person you’re asking — you don’t want your colleague to find out you’re snooping on them.

Ask directly. It’s not always advisable to come out and ask: “How do you like to address conflict?” That can be awkward — and few people will be prepared to answer the question. Instead, share your own preferences as a way to start the conversation: “You might have noticed that I don’t shy away from arguments, and don’t like to beat around the bush.” You could also share tactful observations about what you’ve noticed about your counterpart. “Based on how you responded to Corinne’s questioning in this morning’s meeting, it seems as if you prefer to steer away from conflict. Is that right?”

Once you have a good sense of their style, you can make a more informed choice about how to handle the disagreement. You’ll want to consider how your styles interact. If you’re both seekers, can you expect an all-out brawl? If you’re both avoiders, should you forget the idea of directly addressing the conflict? Let’s go through each of the possible pairings and look at what typically happens and how you can best approach the situation:

You’re both avoiders

What typically happens:

  • Both of you lean toward doing nothing.
  • You may tamp down feelings that could explode later on.

What to do:

  • One of you needs to take the lead.
  • Say directly, “I know neither of us likes conflict, but instead of ignoring the problem, what can we do about it?”
  • Do your best to draw the other person out in a sensitive, thoughtful way.
  • If things get tough, don’t shy away. You’ll need to fight your natural instinct in this case.

You’re both seekers

What typically happens:

  • Neither of you is afraid to say what’s on your mind.
  • The discussion can easily turn contentious.
  • In the heat of the moment, you might end up saying things you don’t actually believe.
  • You both feel disrespected.

What to do:

  • Since you’ll both be eager to address the situation, take extra time to prepare for the conversation.
  • Know that you’re likely to feel impatient, and schedule your discussion in a way that allows you both to take breaks.
  • Be ready — things may get heated. Suggest a coffee break or a walk or a change of scenery to help even out emotions.

You’re a seeker and your counterpart is an avoider

What typically happens:

  • You tend to bulldoze your counterpart into agreeing with you.
  • Your counterpart may act passive aggressively to get their point across.

What to do:

  • Ask the person to participate actively in the conversation — not hide their opinions.
  • Don’t be a bully.
  • Be patient with the pace of the conversation.

You’re an avoider and they’re a seeker

What typically happens:

  • You might be tempted to play the role of “good guy” and go along with what your counterpart wants.
  • You might get trampled by your counterpart’s requests.

What to do:

 

  • Explicitly ask for what you need: “To have a productive conversation, I need you to be patient with me and watch the tone and volume of your voice.”
  • Earn the seeker’s respect by being direct and to the point.
  • Don’t signal disrespect, which is likely to set off the seeker.

Whatever your situation, remember that your goal is to ultimately solve the conflict, not judge someone’s style. Avoid saying something like, “We’ve got a problem here because it seems as if you don’t know how to discuss difficult issues.” Instead, have compassion for the other person — and yourself — and take into account what you know about both of your tendencies to navigate the situation thoughtfully and carefully.

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work. She writes and speaks about workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter at @amyegallo.

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