Be The Right Answer

Don’t tell people what they want to hear. Very often, they don’t want to hear it.

I’ve conducted thousands of interviews in my career. I’ve been a team leader or manager for many years of that career as well. There is a habit that many people have when speaking to anyone in a position of professional authority, whether it’s a hiring manager, a boss, or even a customer. The habit of trying to tell them what you think they want to hear.

It’s a terrible habit. I have a theory about where it comes from; I think we learn it in school. Imagine yourself back in you junior year of high school (nightmarish as the thought may be). Your teacher asks you a question. Your natural instinct is not to think critically about what you believe the answer to be. What’s been drilled into you is that you should be reciting what you’ve already been told the correct answer is.

If your teacher asks you “what were the results of the Stamp Act of 1765,” they’ve definitely already told you at some earlier point what they want to hear in response to this question. If you give the answer that matches what they’re looking for, you’re “correct.” If you say anything else, you’re not.

This is, of course, a ludicrous way to approach the acquisition and application of knowledge. And in the real world, it doesn’t work anything like that.

In the real world, in a professional context, when someone asks you a question it is almost always because they don’t know the answer. It’s almost never a trick or a trap. But time after time, when I interview someone and ask something like “How would you handle a customer that wants a full refund on a package you sold them, but production has already begun,” I can see the wheels turning in their head, the hesitation in their voice, as they try to figure out what I want to hear.

What I want to hear is how they’d handle it!

Here is a huge secret from a hiring manager: If I’m hiring a new marketing associate, and I ask how they’d approach our next marketing campaign, it’s because I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t need to hire someone. Hiring managers often have to hire for positions well outside their own particular area of expertise – I’ve hired software engineers and journalists and carpenters. I don’t have any specific expertise in those fields, but I made great hires regardless. Because I do know how to recruit, how to conduct interviews, how to tap industry experts when I need industry-specific knowledge, and how to extract the right information from department heads to build a candidate profile (it’s like pulling teeth from herded cats, by the way, but I get there).

So when a hiring manager asks you a question, don’t worry about having the right answer. If you’re the right person for the job, you ARE the answer, and that will come through if you abandon the idea of trying to sniff out their preconceived “right” response and realize that there isn’t one. Just speak to your expertise, your character, and your intelligence.

Your relationship to your teacher in high school is absolutely not a model you should emulate in your professional career. Knock yourself out of the sheepish fear of getting a “wrong” answer and having points knocked off of an imaginary grade that will never come. Just go in and accomplish something – because I promise you, with all the sincerity in the world, that you can.

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