The Story of Your Career
The Psychology of Job Interviews
Being a job candidate makes you vulnerable, even in the best of situations. You’re put in the position to prove your value, your fit, your likability. The women of color I work with already struggle with the predominant message sent by white male normative culture: you are not enough. All job candidates struggle with that message to some degree, and we are all made to question our worth as we seek career opportunities or changes. Despite our demonstrable skills and qualifications, we can easily become insecure as we try to convince a hiring manager to like and choose us.
Today’s article is partly about how to prepare for a job interview by developing your storytelling skills. But it’s more about changing the way we see ourselves as job candidates, changing the power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee, and changing the way you build the career of your dreams.
It all begins with shifting your mindset.
My Job Interview Story
Recently, I took a job interview with a professional sports team. I did it despite the fact that I’m thriving at Leverage to Lead right now. I did it because the team and the job offered a little bit of glamour and my ego couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
You too may come across a new opportunity even when you’re not job hunting. This happens more often than you might think—a casual lunch conversation turns into an on-the-spot job talk. Or someone in your network passes along an upcoming opportunity. My experience with HR and my Leverage to Lead clients show me that jobs are secured more often through informal channels like these than through official postings.
My recent interview was for the VP of Human Resources. Having done this work for a long time, I knew—and said during the interview—that the organization is about far more than the players. It was important for me to acknowledge the need for equity and that meant the respect and dignity of every employee, from the popcorn vendors to the cleaning staff to the coaches and the star of the team. I told the story of working at a law firm and seeing first hand that the lead attorneys couldn’t do their work and generate revenue without their staff and without deep mutual respect flowing in both directions of the firm hierarchy.
I never got a call back. I’ll never know for certain if that story was the reason, but I could tell by the interviewer’s voice that my statement didn’t sit well with the organization’s central focus on the players.
Reversing the Psychology
Knowing that I spoke honestly and stuck to my values didn’t mean my ego wasn’t bruised from the rejection. Going in with clarity about my boundaries and how I intend to do my work didn’t prevent me from feeling unwanted when no one called me back. Yes, it was exciting and a little flattering to be interviewing with famous team. My daughter certainly would have thought that job was cool. But, stepping back and reflecting on the situation, I can see that I dodged a bullet. The team and I weren’t a good fit and I would have been miserable fighting to do my job the way I believed it needed to be done.
If I hadn’t known for certain how I wanted to work, I might have taken the job. I might have contorted myself into the candidate they wanted, in order to feel chosen and avoid the sting of rejection. Maybe you’ve found yourself in this situation. Maybe you’re currently working with an organization that conflicts with your core values.
How do we change the psychology of job interviews and keep ourselves from taking jobs that are all wrong for us?
You, the candidate, need to know that you do have choices and that you are good enough—probably far better than you are willing to acknowledge. And in the job interview, it’s your time to double down on what you value and what you want to do.
I know most people reading this don’t believe me when I say you are free to work the way you want to. I know most readers are stuck with the script in their head that says there’s no way to work without being a slave to billable hours or tenure or my organization’s toxic currency.
I say: not if you know how to leverage your skills and your difference. Not if you know how to tell your story.
What is Your Story?
A common job interview question is, why are you a good fit for this role? Consider these two possible answers.
Answer No. 1: I’m highly skilled in mergers and acquisitions, with ten years of direct experience. I know how to communicate clearly, handle the opposition, and advocate for my client. I am committed to in-depth research and collaborating well with a team to smooth out difficult negotiations.
Answer No. 2: The most recent acquisition my team oversaw was complicated and required several rounds of negotiations with the party being acquired. I believe it is important to be clear and lay the groundwork for negotiations. Their team was very nervous and unorganized, and I needed to communicate that our client sought a fair and beneficial agreement before any of the hard negotiations began. Once I laid the groundwork for mutual respect and clear communication, the detailed negotiations went very smoothly and we closed the deal on schedule.
You can see that the second answer builds a narrative around the person’s skills, rather than just rehearsing those skills in a list. It’s a simple principle of “show, don’t tell” but it’s also a strategy for setting boundaries around how you will work.
Here’s another example. When interviewees are asked to describe a professional challenge, they often get mired in simply describing the challenge, i.e. terminating an employee is hard, it’s one of my least favorite aspects of being a manager, the process is long and expensive...
When what you should be doing is leading with the story of what you value: No organization wants to fire their employees. I believe, that it’s kinder and better to be honest with an employee who isn’t meeting expectations. I don’t want anyone to be surprised by their termination process, which can sometimes take months. I make sure an underperforming employee understands the problem, is given the responsibility and opportunity to improve, and is clearly aware of the consequences of failing to do so within the required time frame. By the time termination proceedings begin, people working for me are not only aware but ready to handle it.
Every answer in an interview should illustrate the way you will do your job, the values you are grounded in, what you are and are not willing to do, and who you are as a whole person.
By the end of an interview, the hiring manager should feel like they know what you can do and what you stand for. Take note of their responses to you and gauge whether you resonate with their values. Are they nodding and engaged with your story? Are they challenging your boundaries or contradicting your values? Assess them for their fit as much as they’re assessing you.
Break Up with Toxic Dynamics
Let’s back up one step: you can’t tell a story if you don’t know how it ends.
You have to know your value and your skills, and you have to know exactly how you will do the job before you step into the role.
So, get clear right now about how you want to work. Get clear on your boundaries with time, capacity, integrity, creativity, and freedom. This is how you will avoid saying yes to everything in the interview and succumbing to your need for approval and external validation.
You don’t want to work until midnight and all weekend? Tell a story about how you operate during the crunch of a deadline—how you get organized in advance, have people run point on all the issues, how you strategically approach your deadline so that no one has to pull all-nighters—saying this demonstrates your value while negotiating the terms and conditions of your work.
Too often, we approach our work like a bad relationship. We go in with the belief that we can change the other, and we put up with bad behavior and bad treatment in the name of that belief.
But Hang onto Good Mentors
Speaking of relationships, you need someone, or a whole team, to help you build your story. It’s important to know that you can’t build an accurate story alone, without feedback or mirroring. Find someone who can see you professionally with objectivity while rooting for you.
This is probably not going to be a family member, a best friend, or a peer colleague. It’s perhaps a mentor, a career coach, a therapist. This person needs to be able to help you articulate your strengths accurately and tie your core values to your skills. They need to be on your side, brutally honest, real, and optimistic.
Storytelling at a Moment’s Notice
You might be thinking this storytelling strategy isn’t for you because you’re not looking for a job. I want be clear that building your story is ongoing and continuous work that should be happening when you’re job hunting, when you’ve arrived at a new position, when you’ve been at your position for a while, and even when you’re doing well and have no plans to go anywhere.
I know it’s common to neglect updating your resume until you’re looking for a job—at which point you’re well past the best time to capture your achievements. You should never let your work just happen without taking stock of what you’re learning, contributing, and building.
Consider, too, that most executive positions aren’t created the same way as others. Often, there is no job posting and standard hiring process. More and more, opportunities will come to you in the form of a conversation where you learn about an organization’s needs, start offering a little friendly advice, and suddenly find yourself co-creating a role that didn’t exist before.
Will you be ready for those moments with your story?
Will you know what you can bring and be poised to grab an opportunity when it arises?
Will you be able to clearly see which opportunities will fulfill someone else’s desires, and which will fulfill yours?
Your entire career is a story, continuously unfolding and needing to be deeply understood and told well.
Building a Life on Your Terms
Here’s the bottom line: don’t take the job that isn’t a good fit.
The job isn’t going to change for you. The job that doesn’t fit isn’t going to someday recognize your value after you’ve proven yourself. And the job itself is never going to bring you satisfaction. Real job satisfaction comes from having control over how and when you work, with whom, and why.
If you’re in a career or with an organization that doesn’t value what you do, you need to start reclaiming your time right now so that you can do the work of building your story.
If you’re in a pretty good place right now, you still need to do the work so you can be ready for that new opportunity, or that sudden economic downturn, that unexpected transfer, that new CEO’s agenda.
If you wait until you must find a new job, you risk building a story out of your hurt and fear. You risk telling a story of what you’re running away from and not where you are going.
So, every quarter, you should schedule a meeting with yourself. Review your most recent work, update your resume, reflect on what went well, what you want more of, what you want to eliminate, what you’ve gained, how you’ve advanced, how much closer you are to a promotion or raise. Add a little to your story each time and share it constantly.
How Storytelling Disrupts Bias
What if you look younger than your age and experience bias against your wisdom, experience, and abilities? You can use storytelling to confront that bias head-on, describing times when people have presumed that you do not have deep experience in a certain area, only to have shown them the extent of your knowledge and confront their biases.
For you, it may need to be story that disrupts biases steeped in a male-dominated environment, class prejudices, racial stereotyping, ableism. The pay equity gap deepens when you don’t keep track of your value and don’t have a narrative that pushes people to acknowledge what you do and compensate you for your real value.
Manage Your Career
In the end, no one else is going to do it for you. You need to be prepared to expand your opportunities, find ones that are a better fit, or build ones that don’t yet exist. Even if your goal is to remain where you are currently, you need to do this work in order to maintain stability and control over your career. People will always try to impose their will—it’s just the nature of things. You need to be ready to know where you stand, where you will bend, and where you are rooted.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive my newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.