“So, tell me about yourself”

InterviewA good friend of mine got talking to me about interview questions the other day.

She was having a laugh at the ‘creative’ questions that many interviewers can dream up such as “tell me what makes you special!”

I replied that I think the worst interview question is the “what are your greatest weaknesses”…and then I got thinking about why this is so.

Now, an interviewer can dream up all sorts of weird and wonderful questions that will allow you the space to sell yourself (if you are willing and able to) but this ‘weakness question’ is different. I suspect that it makes us all squirm because it causes a huge moral dilemma:

  • you want to be yourself, to be genuine, to be open and honest….

BUT

  • you also want the job!

So you’ve been put in a rather tight spot!

I’ve read all sorts of ‘clever’ (cheesy) responses. There’s plenty of advice on the web to answer this tricky conundrum, but they all try to do the same thing: get around the question rather than being brutally honest.

So, why am I bringing up this dastardly interview ‘weakness’ question?

Well, because I realised that this is an excellent parallel to the (ir)regular performance management meeting.

How so?

If you are part of a ‘set personal objectives – rate performance against – provide contingent reward’ Performance Management system then you too are in a rather tight spot.

Let’s imagine that you are in your annual performance review meeting:

  • on the one hand, you have a manager before you who has the job of developing you and, to do this, needs to truly know about how things are for you. They need genuine, open and honest ‘warts and all’ feedback;
  • on the other hand, this same manager has to judge you, which requires an interrogation of the available evidence and the scoring of it, as compared to your peers. You need to sell yourself.

What’s wrong with this?

These two ‘management’ roles are diametrically opposed. A manager cannot be judge and counsellor/coach at the same time.

If you were to lie down in a psychiatrist’s chair, you can expect that he/she will go to great lengths to put you at your ease, make clear that everything spoken is private and that no judgement of you will take place….and even then I suspect that it would take multiple visits before you truly opened yourself up….and in so doing, you provide the knowledge and insights required for you to develop.

Now, I know you won’t lie on a reclining chair in a performance review meeting (at least I don’t) but a similar environment of trust is required for a manager to truly help you (and, by extension, the organisation).

“When the person to whom you report decides how much money you will make (or what other goodies will be awarded to you) you have a temptation to conceal any problems you might be having. Rather than asking for help, which is a pre-requisite for optimal performance, you will be apt to spend your energies trying to flatter that person and convince him [or her] that you have everything under control. Moreover…you will be less likely to challenge poor decisions and engage in the kind of conflict that is beneficial for the organisation if you are concerned about losing out on a reward. Very few things are as dangerous as a bunch of incentive-driven individuals trying to play it safe.” (Alfie Kohn)

If you know that you are being judged (with a carrot or stick at the end of this) then you are going to be extremely careful (and selective) about what you do and say. You will likely:

  • seek, sift through and provide only positive evidence (choosing feedback wisely and carefully omitting what doesn’t fit your wishes);
  • talk up what has occurred, and you role within (it was all ‘because of me’!);
  • defend your position when it is challenged (presenting a strong case as to why something or someone else was to blame);
  • keep quiet about areas you have struggled with;
  • …[and so on – no doubt you can expand]

None of this is to call you a ‘bad person’…you would be merely playing your part in the game of survival that has been put before you.

You might get your carrot, but your organisation will miss out on what it really needed to know…and the game will continue on to its next round.

A better way

Wouldn’t it be just fantastic if you were willing to ‘share it all’ with your manager, and to do so without any salesperson’s spin. How about: where you got it wrong; where you didn’t understand; where you don’t agree, where you feel weak and exposed, where you’d really like some help… where it was actually a joint team effort (not just ‘me’)…basically what is really going on!

Even better, how about being willing to have these conversations as and when the need arises (and not, say, 6 months later in some staged meeting).

This is possible….but only with a different way of thinking.

Here’s where I repeat Alfie Kohn’s 3-step approach that I have already shared in an earlier post (The Chasm):

  1. abolish incentives: remove extrinsic motivators (incentives, competitive awards….);

“pay people well and fairly…then put money out of their minds.” (Kohn)

  1. then re-evaluate ‘evaluations’: move from formal time-batched judgement events to continual 2-way conversations divorced from the issue of compensation;
  1. then create the conditions for authentic motivation:
    • Collaboration: across the horizontal value stream
    • Work content: make it interesting
    • Choice: allow people to experiment and learn

There’s a reason for the order of these steps: True organisational success is unleashed by point 3…but, most importantly, is held back (even quashed) without first attending to point’s 1 and 2.

Irony

There are some people who are willing and able to say exactly what they think in a performance management review*, which they do because they have a desire to make their organisation a better place to work (for them, and everyone else)….and then risk the consequences of low(er) ratings and a poor ‘reputation’ with their manager (as in “s/he’s a trouble maker that one!”)…which may even then go on to be ‘shared’ with others in the hierarchy.

This is ironic madness. I favour any management system that encourages and supports open-ness and honesty that is devoid of personal agendas.

* I’m not suggesting that there is anything particularly great about such people. Such willingness and ability may come down to personality and economic circumstance allowing…which is not so for most.

 

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3 thoughts on ““So, tell me about yourself”

  1. Me! I’m one of those people who aren’t great who say what they think in performance appraisals!
    Manager before last, she was going to mark me down with bottom rank, and was actually threatening me to do so because I said I couldn’t participate due to the whole thing being a total fantasy based on flawed theory.
    After the threat I replied, as if the whole previous awkward 15 minutes hadn’t happened with a litany of unbelievable bollocks about my “achievements” that year so she had words to fill the form in with. That being the purpose, fill in the appraisal form. As long as I was saying out loud that I knew it was total bollocks I felt comfortable saying the bollocks.
    I’m not independently wealthy, or particularly brave, but due to high functioning Aspergers, have a total inability to play the game if it involves pretending to believe things that aren’t true and pretending that this isn’t happening. I see it as a blessing not a curse, though I can see it IS a hindrance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too have suffered from providing candid and honest responses in reviews and all sorts of situations. I put it down to working class values – an inability to mislead or pretend people. Pretension was frowned upon in my family. I always feel that I owe it to myself. Doesn’t do your career any good though.

    Like

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