WHEN SELF-PRAISE IS THE BEST PRESENT YOU CAN GIVE YOURSELF
Forget the Irish attitude that modesty is always the best option; it's a career death sentence when it comes to the interview situation.
Most people are pleasantly surprised when they DON’T get a PFO letter in response to their application for a job. We get so much rejection in this life, particularly in the field of job hunting, that we almost expect it. Unfortunately, many candidates carry that hangdog attitude with them into the interview room.
It’s rarely an overt expression of negativity. Most will be well-dressed on the day, will be ready to talk about their strengths / accomplishments to some extent and will assert their suitability for the job under discussion. But I continually get the sense that many of them just don’t believe in what they are saying. It’s a pity that polygraphs aren’t used in the recruitment process, because so many candidates aren’t even aware of this lack of self-belief and one would be doing them a real favour to illustrate it to them.
The hackneyed axiom is that, “If you’ve got the interview, you’ve got the job;” unless, of course you talk yourself out of it. Which is precisely what most unsuccessful candidates do.
This is, in part, a cultural difficulty. Here in the land of Saints and Scholars, we are not encouraged to trumpet our achievements and Ireland’s moniker as a Land of Begrudgers is almost a cliché. We do not celebrate excellence. We do not feel happy for those who are successful. We devour tabloid accounts of the downfall of various celebrities. Broad, sweeping generalisations I realise; and certainly not in any way true for you, fair reader. But truisms nevertheless.
But I think this negativity goes deeper than the cultural overtone. We use a language that has remained fundamentally unchanged for hundreds of years. Subtract all of the modern slang and techno-babble and we still speak like characters in a Jane Austen novel. And that mode of expression is very demurring and self-deprecating.
Victorian English was all about understatement. Self-aggrandisement and verbal posturing were the province of those crass ex-colonials across the Atlantic. And we are not exactly a million miles removed from that era in the way in which we express ourselves today.
Take a look at any good dictionary. It is chock-full of negative terms for which there are no positive opposite. You can be disastrous, discarded, discommoded, uncouth, disconsolate, inane, unctuous, dismal, inadvertent, or distracted. But you can’t be their opposite. Have you ever met anyone who was peccable, gruntled or kempt? Corrigible? Ept? Sipid? Illusioned?
The phrase in my house was, “Self-praise is no praise at all;” and every self-deprecating client I meet smiles when I recount this; because it so obviously has a familiar ring to it. The problem is, you need to shed that skin when you walk into a job interview.
If you are applying for a mid-level position with some perks, the employer is effectively making a purchasing decision of €40,000 to €60,000. As you walk through the door of the interview room, you have a price tag around your neck and the employer is picking you up, shaking you, looking at you from all angles and wondering, “Is she or he really worth that much?”
This would be fine if you were the only item in the shop, but unfortunately you are being measured against candidates so similar, you might as well all come in yellow packaging. One employer I was working with rather unkindly referred to the graduate candidates in a recruitment drive by his company as being, “as indistinguishable as link sausages being ground out of a machine.” Same education, same suits, same fake smiles plastered on, same clichéd answers.
I refer to this as the Rabbit in the middle of the road phenomenon. The rabbit squats, quivering, on the broken white line for fear of being flattened by even trying to reach the grassy bank on either side. Many interview candidates are so afraid of standing out that they become almost paralysed by their conformity. They are virtually impossible to tell apart. Or remember. Or like.
Case in point: Most thinking people find it very difficult to take the so-called differences between the largest parties in Dail Eireann seriously. Let’s not kid ourselves, the reasons for their foundation and the painful differences that existed between them then are utterly irrelevant to the current circumstances of the modern voter. For an hilarious after-dinner game, download statements from their websites and try and guess which party wrote them. Unfortunately, this headlong dash for the centre ground has leaked out of the political arena and now pervades society.
If you are going for a job interview, DO NOT fall into this trap. You cannot please all of the people all of the time and you will almost certainly betray yourself if you try to fudge on who you really are. If you are a square peg, there is no point in applying for round hole jobs. If you somehow manage to get hired for one, your boss is going to spend a lot of time bashing you on the head with a hammer until all of the corners have been knocked off you.
More to the point, if you fail at interview while lying or concealing one of your rough edges, it is likely to be that very thing that caused them to reject you. Much better to tell the truth (albeit with a positive slant on it) and be rejected for who you really are. What are you afraid of?
In a professional interview setting, the name of the game is reassurance. “Hiring me represents no risk to your organisation,” should be the central theme of your delivery. Give them any reason to think otherwise and they will be drawing a line through your name instead of under it.
Most candidates are blissfully unaware of their self-deprecation and of the feeling of unease that it engenders in the listener. Well-trained interviewers (now there’s a rare species!) will be able to pinpoint exactly why they are uneasy - they will pick up on hesitations, inappropriate vocabulary, conflicting non-verbal cues and all of the other indicators that betray your lack of self belief. Your common or garden interviewer will not be quite so scientific in their analysis, but will “just have a feeling” that you are not the right candidate …
If you have failed at interviews for jobs that you felt you were well-suited to, you need to go back to the drawing board. Interviews are not about answering questions; they are about delivering a carefully prepared personal agenda. This requires self-knowledge and confident delivery, neither of which come without a lot of hard work.
Actors spend weeks working with the rest of the cast honing their delivery. They are not focussing on the substance of the play; most principal actors arrive for day one of rehearsals with their lines already memorised. Rehearsal then, is all about style and establishing credibility.
To succeed at a job interview, you have to overcome your upbringing, the overly modest language of your forebears and your natural human dislike of the selection process itself. And all without straying over the line into arrogance. Do you seriously think you can make all of that up as you go along?
Rowan Manahan is Managing Director of Fortify Services, a Dublin-based outplacement and career management firm.