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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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Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn.

Are you successful at coaching your employees? In our years studying and working with companies on this topic, we’ve observed that when many executives say “yes,” they’re ill-equipped to answer the question. Why? For one thing, managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.

According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.

Recently, my colleagues and I conducted a study that shows that most managers don’t understand what coaching really is — and that also sheds light on how to fix the problem. The good news is that managers can improve their coaching skills in a short amount of time (15 hours), but they do have to invest in learning how to coach in the first place. This research project is still in progress, but we wanted to offer a glimpse into our methodology and initial findings.

First, we asked a group of participants to coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in a course on leadership training participated, with a variety of backgrounds and jobs. One-third of the participants were female and two-thirds were male; on average, they were 32 years old and had eight years of work and 3.8 years of leadership experience. The coaching conversations lasted five minutes and were videotaped. Later, these tapes were evaluated by other participants in the coaching course through an online peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the conversations. All of these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience and 7.4 years of coaching experience.

Participants then received face-to-face training in two groups of 50, with breakouts in smaller groups for practice, feedback, and reflection around different coaching skills. At the end, we videotaped another round of short coaching conversations, which were again evaluated by both peers and coaching experts. In total, we collected and analyzed more than 900 recorded evaluations of coaching conversations (pre-training and post-training), which were accompanied by surveys asking participants about their attitudes and experiences with leadership coaching before and after the training.

The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you do this?”

This kind of micromanaging-as-coaching was initially reinforced as good coaching practice by other research participants as well. In the first coaching exercise in our study, the evaluations peers gave one another were significantly higher than the evaluations from experts.

Our research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches. We focused on analyzing the following nine leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and our own practical experiences of leadership coaching:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

Using the combined coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the managers’ abilities, we identified the best, worst, and most improved components of coaching. The skill the participants were the best at before training was listening, which was rated “average” by our experts. After the training, the experts’ rating increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labeled “average-to-good.”

The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were “recognizing and pointing out strengths” and “letting the coachee arrive at their own solution.” On the former, participants were rated “poor” pre-training, and their rating improved to “average” after the training was completed. Clearly, this is an area managers need more time to practice, and it’s something they likely need to be trained on differently as well. Interestingly, the most improved aspect of coaching was “letting coachees arrive at their own solution.” This concept saw an average increase in proficiency of 54.1%, which moved it from a “poor” rating to “slightly above average.”

More generally, multiple assessments of participants by experts before and after the training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average. Given that this was a very short training course this is a remarkable improvement.

What can organizations learn from our research? First, any approach to coaching should begin by clearly defining what it is and how it differs from other types of manager behavior. This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training and gives managers a clear set of expectations.

The next step is to let managers practice coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their teams. The good news, as evidenced by our research, is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference. You do, however, need to invest in some form of training. Even a short course targeted at the right skills can markedly improve managers’ coaching skills.

Regardless of the program you choose, make sure it includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching abilities. In our study, managers rated their coaching ability three times: once after we asked them to coach someone cold, once after they were given additional training, and once looking back at their original coaching session. After the training, managers decreased their initial assessment of themselves by 28.8%, from “slightly good” to “slightly poor.” This change was corroborated by managers’ peers, who reduced their assessment by 18.4%, from “slightly good” to “neither good nor bad,” when looking back at their original observations of others. In other words, if managers have more knowledge and training, they are able to provide a better self-assessment of their skills. Organizations should allocate time for managers to reflect on their skills and review what they have done. What’s working, and what they could do better?

Our research also supports the idea of receiving feedback from coaching experts in order to improve. The risk of letting only nonexperts help might reinforce and normalize ineffective behaviors throughout an organization. Specifically, coaching experts could give feedback on how well the coaching skills were applied and if any coaching opportunities have been missed. This monitoring could take the form of regular peer coaching, where managers in an organization come together to practice coaching with each other, or to discuss common problems and solutions they have encountered when coaching others, all in the presence of a coaching expert. Here managers have two advantages: First, they can practice their coaching in a safe environment. Second, coaches can discuss challenges they have experienced and how to overcome them.

If you take away only one thing here, it’s that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time. Fortunately, even a small amount of training can help. Not only does a lack of training leave managers unprepared, it may effectively result in a policy of managers’ reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves. This can result in wasted time, money, and energy.

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, the original published version of this article did not include the author’s final edits. The piece has been updated.


Julia Milner is a Professor in Leadership and the Academic Director of the Global MBA program at EDHEC Business School in France and an Honorary Professorial Fellow with the Sydney Business School in Australia. She has recently been selected as one of the World’s Top 40 under 40 Business Professors by Poets & Quants. Her research focuses on leadership, high performance cultures, and technology usage.


Trenton Milner is the General Manager of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching focusing on leadership development programs. He is a management consultant with a diverse background and over 20 years experience managing large training projects across different cultures. His research focus is strategy, finance, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

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