During an interview recently, I found myself struggling with answering a question that asked about a mistake I had made and what I had learned. In some ways, that seemed like an easy question, but I found myself wondering how much I should reveal about myself. I felt a tension between my impulse to share honestly and the very practical desire to land the job. I wanted to be authentic in my response, but I struggled to find a balance between appearing confident and sharing a vulnerable moment.
The desire for authenticity is talked about so much in relation to our broadly exposed personas, but the meaning seems elusive. What is authenticity in this context? Is it acceptable to be our “authentic selves” in a job search? Or does the pursuit of authenticity sometimes get in the way of our professional goals?
After that interview, I took some time to consider the meaning of authenticity. In this case, authenticity is referring to the trustworthiness of something: is it true? Is it actually what it claims to be? This notion has some relation to the current idea of “branding” in the job search. Branding in relation to a personal image is an effort to capture something that is core and quintessentially true about oneself and market it in words, phrases and spoken “pitches” to potential employers.
Yet while the concept of being able to concisely and accurately present the essence of oneself to an employer is a good one, the artifact of the branding practice often turns into something entirely different. In the end, our effort can become so shaped and molded that our brand merely “looks like ourselves” in the various documents and spoken pitches. In an effort to create a professional image, we lose some of the things that seem “real or genuine” about us.
This lack of sense of realness or one’s natural self is what makes people feel so odd about the process of networking and interviewing. As you begin to navigate the job search process, I want to share with you methods I have found that can help you foster an authentic sense of self while honoring your professional goals.
Think of yourself thematically. Instead of practicing a short, well-crafted pitch about yourself, you can use alternative and very meaningful ways to portray a consistent sense of who you are without creating a wax figure of your professional image. My recommendation is to go at this idea of your professional self thematically rather than through specific words or phrases.
Ask yourself and those who know you well what stories most represent who you are. Talk about those stories and identify the themes, adjectives and behaviors that illustrate who you are and then translate them into what you bring to the table in relation to a job. For example, if a recurring theme for you is “reliable and trusted friend” ask yourself (and others) what qualities make this so and how would they might play out in a work setting. Capture multiple themes across many stories that seem most relevant. After you do this, you will find that you have several methods for describing who you are with rich evidence and examples to share when appropriate -- without memorizing a pitch.
This technique also provides you with many specific examples to draw on when responding to those dreaded “tell me about yourself” questions. The outline to your answer can be the three or four well-thought-out themes that capture and describe the core of who you are.
Don’t tell all. Where authenticity can trip up the professional self is when the idea of being “authentic” gets commingled with the idea of “full disclosure.” Certainly the opportunity to share broad aspects of ourselves on social media feeds this sense of authenticity. Buried beneath our pursuit of likes on a post or Tweet, there is the deep desire as humans to be known for who we are in total. Many people even hold the belief that to be genuine or real means to make sure others know us completely.
But the job search and even other professional activities and settings can play tricks with what we choose to share with others about ourselves. Getting to know someone fully takes time and requires trust. When you first meet someone in an interview, they only know what you tell them about yourself or what they may have read on your resume. So what might seem very appropriate in relation to who you are in total can seem strangely inappropriate with little context.
Practically speaking, decide before you go into an interview or a networking session what themes and related stories you want to share to give a true sense of yourself to another person. At the same time, determine what aspects of yourself you want to keep private. Imagine yourself as a blank canvas and draw lines, shapes or words that will provide during that interview a view of yourself at your best in a work setting. Conversely, ask yourself what would be distracting lines and filler that would detract from the message of who you are in relation to the job. Share the former and leave the latter at home with your close friends.
That is where tying truth with relevancy during an interview will give you the opportunity to use careful discernment and show professional maturity. For example, you may be effective at gaining information about people through your ability to ask pointed questions in a persuasive way -- the kind of person in whom others will confide. Framing that skill as knowing how to ask the right question to get the information you need to make a decision is quite different than sharing an anecdote about how people will tell you anything. The former example sounds like someone who knows how to gather information to solve problems, while the latter one may make an employer wonder about your ability to respect boundaries and your trustworthiness.
This type of framing and discernment will help you be genuine and true to yourself, as well as do well in an interview. It is essential in the realm of professional truth-telling to remember that you can be authentic and still withhold information.
Answer difficult questions with the right focus. Often interview questions invite you to discuss aspects of yourself that are not easy to talk about. How do you respond to such questions? Are you totally open? Or do you obscure the full sense of yourself to secure a position and be perceived as the perfect candidate?
Those questions might include, for instance, “How did you deal with a challenging relationship with a supervisor or a project that failed?” “What are the environments that you don’t like or thrive in?” They are an employer’s attempt to see how you respond in difficult situations.
You should be honest but think carefully how you answer such questions. Instead of focusing on the difficulty, the mismatched partnership or the failure of a situation, think about what that situation might say about your authentic self and how you handle challenges in another context.
For example, if someone asks you to describe how you dealt with a work conflict, discuss how you operate as a professional through difficult circumstances. What are the truths about you in those circumstances that you would want to put on that interview canvas? Share the behavior that the employer will actually witness about you in the work setting.
If your immediate response in a conflict at work is to feel anxiety, it is probably not the part of the story that the employer would find useful. Many of us feel anxiety around conflict and, although that is an authentic reaction, it doesn’t really describe how you would resolve a work challenge from an employer’s perspective. Instead, highlight the productive behaviors you use to manage that conflict and cite examples that are most relevant in an interview situation.
Ask neutral questions. Sometimes you might ask questions to reveal your interests and values, which can be appropriate. But you also have the option to ask questions that merely gather information, without revealing your position. I call those “neutral questions.”
For example, you may really prefer a boss who provides a lot of training and supervision but would be perfectly willing to work with one who is more hands-off as well. Asking a question that is neutral, such as, “What is your preferred style of supervision and support?” instead of, “Will you be available for regular meetings as I learn the ropes?” may make the difference in whether you get hired or not. The former allows you to gather information without adding things to the canvas that may make that person decide against you as the candidate of choice.
To thine own self be true (at the right time). There are times in the job search process when disclosure is essential for you to determine job fit. For example, you may have family considerations that require your schedule to be flexible in some way. This truth about your life and your priorities may be something for which you are not willing to compromise.
Given that, when should you raise these aspects of your life without hurting your chances of getting the job? The best time is when you are in the negotiation stage. Once an employer has decided on you as a candidate, they have begun the process of advocating for you as a future employee and are generally more willing to be flexible in order to make the hire. That’s when that fuller disclosure is more appropriate and can work to your advantage.
Authenticity has value. In the end, authenticity does not get in the way of our professional goals -- in fact, it is a crucial, defining element in the interview process. The beautiful challenge is to decide what to share and when. As you progress in your career development, take time to understand what authenticity means to you in the context of your aspirations and practice how to express that in a productive and professionally mature way. It can make the difference between landing a job and landing the right one for you.
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