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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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The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback

Feedback is a daily staple of my work as an executive coach. I am often giving direct feedback to the leaders I work with, sharing 360-degree feedback from the leader’s colleagues, and then helping them process and reflect on the feedback they receive.

One piece of feedback that the executives I coach receive over and over again from their direct reports is: “She doesn’t give enough helpful feedback.”

When I ask these direct reports about the impact this has on them, I find that, in the absence of understanding why they’re getting so little feedback, they often make up their own explanations.

Here are three of the most common stories that employees tell themselves about what their manager is thinking when they don’t get enough helpful feedback, why these stories are a problem for them (and for you), and what you can do as a manager to rewrite these stories:

Story 1: “As long as I’m not creating trouble for my manager, I’m doing fine.”

Why this is a problem: While some people are perfectly satisfied just staying out of trouble, most professionals would rather know what impact they’re having — both the good and the not-so-good. If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee,” then your bar is way too low. And, as a result, you will likely get more of what you focus on, which means a whole bunch of “non-troublemakers” as opposed to high-performing, committed, and engaged professionals.

Furthermore, communicating this mindset (overtly or covertly) is likely to keep an employee from bringing important issues to your attention for fear that they might “create trouble” — and then lose out on the only input they’re getting from you.

What to do instead: “Not creating trouble” should become your minimum expectation, not the highest goal you set for your people. And after you change your expectation, change your mindset and your language. Let your employees know specifically what you appreciate and value when they meet or exceed expectations, and also share your perspective on what they could do differently when they fall short. Also let them know what constitutes unacceptable “trouble” (like making inappropriate remarks, repeatedly showing up late, poor follow-through on tasks) vs. acceptable “trouble” (such as difficulty obtaining a resource, not knowing how to do something, or needing a personal accommodation).

Story 2“My manager doesn’t think I can take feedback well.”

Why this is a problem: Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job. It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety — which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake — for a direct report to receive feedback well.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

If you’re not giving feedback because you actually fear that it won’t be well-received, then you’re falling short on three counts: first, you’re not helping your direct report to have more impact (which also means, by extension, that you’re not supporting her to better help the team, the clients, and the organization). Second, you’re not modeling accountable behavior if you skip giving feedback because you fear how it will land. And third, you may be contributing to a lack of psychological safety by failing to create the opportunity for your direct report to experience support rather than retribution.

What to do instead: Separate out the story from the facts of how your direct report receives feedback. If you aren’t giving regular feedback because you assume or fear that your colleague won’t receive it well, ask yourself, “What concrete, observable evidence am I basing that assumption on?” If the list includes behaviors like, “He walks out of meetings abruptly when he hears something he doesn’t agree with,” or “She often asks, ‘Am I going to get fired for this?’ when I bring a client concern to her attention,” then you may be justified in your concerns. In my article,“When Your Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback,” I suggest that managers start giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback (or in this case, how you think he or she is likely to receive feedback based on similar situations).

And if it turns out that you don’t have compelling evidence to support your belief that he or she won’t receive it well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it.” Give your employees the feedback they crave.

 

Story 3: “My manager doesn’t think I can change.”

Why this is a problem: If you actually believe that your employee cannot change, you will not offer him the resources or opportunities to do so. This will set you up to be right, but at the expense of your employee’s current success, and future career trajectory. As Chris Miller, a program director at UNC Executive Development, writes in his white paper, “Expectations Create Outcomes: Growth Mindsets in Organizations”: “managers with fixed mindsets often fail to recognize positive changes in employee performance. They are also less likely to coach employees about how to improve performance or to offer constructive feedback…This leads to a loss of talent in organizations.”

What do to instead: Adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. As Miller writes, “Employees with growth mindsets welcome challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, which makes them more successful learners and better contributors to their organizations than employees with fixed mindsets (Briceno, 2015).”  If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome — and rise to — the challenge. And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.

As Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

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How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them

Tad knew he was losing his hearing. What he didn’t know was that everyone around him knew as well.

Tad (not his real name) was a senior executive in a multinational company. Much of his work was done in lengthy meetings with dozens of participants. His hearing loss was making it difficult for him to keep track of what was happening in meetings — but his vanity kept him from getting a hearing aid. So instead, when he missed important points, he would try to decipher what was happening from slides or fill in the blanks from the fragments of conversation he could catch. Others in the meetings were, by turns, embarrassed for and frustrated with him. People began trying to hold meetings without him in order to improve efficiency. They would feign strong emotion when making a point so that they had an excuse to raise their volume. But no one dared raise the issue.

It turns out, Tad is not alone. Most managers aren’t aware of what their employees really think about them.

We and our colleagues at VitalSmarts recently conducted an online study to understand if employees feel comfortable and able to share critical feedback with their manager — especially when the feedback is about the manager’s behavior. Eighty percent of the 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If there’s something about your boss that frustrates you (and everyone around you), here’s how you can broach the subject in a thoughtful, productive way — and what managers can do to encourage their employees to open up.

How to Share Uncomfortable Feedback with Your Boss

Don’t start with your complaint. Start with consequences. Help your boss understand not just what the problem is (they overschedule and then cancel meetings) but why they should care. If the boss has a why for listening to uncomfortable feedback, they’re more likely to hear what you’re saying. For example: “As you know, we’ve missed three customer deadlines in the past six months. The problem is fixable, but it involves working with you differently in the future. May I describe what I see going on?”

Offer workarounds rather than turnarounds. It would be nice if your boss committed to a major personality change as a result of your conversation, but don’t bet on it. Even if they listen well and care about your concerns, their behavioral patterns may be so longstanding that they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. That’s why you should propose a workaround that mitigates the boss’s weaknesses. For example: “I’ve examined the kinds of things we wait on you to decide. Of the eight kinds of decisions, four of them are ones you have followed the team’s recommendations on 100% of the time. We can eliminate a chunk of our delays, and free up significant time on your calendar, if you delegate those to the team. We would notify you so that you could countermand the decision if you have concerns, but if we don’t hear back in 24 hours we will move ahead. Would that work?”

Suspend judgment. Find a way to replace your judgments with empathy. If you’re juiced up on resentment when you approach your boss, no amount of fakery will keep you from telegraphing your frustration. Conversations like these work only if the other person feels safe with you. And nothing destroys safety more reliably than a sense of derision. Examine your weaknesses. Examine your boss’s strengths. Be honest with yourself about the ways in which you are part of the problem. For example, has procrastinating on having this conversation made matters worse? We’ve found the longer you wait, the more your resentment grows toward the other person. It’s easy to let our own faintheartedness alchemize into disgust toward the boss.

How to Encourage Your Employees to Give You Feedback

The main thing leaders can do is make it safe to point out their weaknesses. This demands humility.

Sharing this article with your team is a great way to open this topic. Email it to your direct reports with the following statement: “This made me think about me and us. I want to know what everyone but me knows about what I can do better. In coming days, I want to create some opportunities for you to help me learn how I can support you better.”

Then, use these three suggestions to follow through on that commitment:

Make it normal. Make employee-to-manager feedback a regular agenda item at team meetings. If you have made commitments to improve, take a moment to report on what you have done, and then ask team members to rate your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. They’ll struggle the first few times you do it, but frequency will overcome timidity. Make it normal and it will feel less risky.

Adopt a coach. Ask a direct report who’s usually candid to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback. Make the coaching relationship public to demonstrate your sincerity about improving.

Prime the pump. One of the most powerful ways to encourage feedback in a group or one-on-one setting is to “prime the pump.” Give examples of concerns your coach has raised to demonstrate that it is safe to share tough feedback with you. For example, you might say, “What can I do better? I’ve heard from Gail that I am often inaccessible. I spend a lot of time out of the office, which makes it difficult for you to involve me in critical issues. I am working on a plan to fix that. What else would you like me to do better on?” If you can quote feedback you’ve received in a way that shows you aren’t threatened by it, you generate evidence for your team that other issues might be safe as well.

The old cliché is wrong — ignorance is not bliss. The frustration and concern people keep from their bosses eat away at productivity, performance, and results. Our research shows that what people don’t talk out, they will act out in the form of resentment, turnover, apathy, or deference. The path to results is paved with candid and direct communication. Leaders aren’t exempt from bad behavior — and they shouldn’t be exempt from feedback either.


Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.


Brittney Maxfield is the Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts.

 

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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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