The One Thing You Need to Do to Nail the Interview (Even if You Are Not the Most Qualified Candidate)
In today’s job market there is a buzzword taking over the recruiting process: cultural fit. There is a clear shift from hiring the most qualified candidate to hiring the best “fit” for the company. In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Just because someone is good at their job, doesn’t mean they are going to represent your brand in a way that aligns with the company’s mission. Some of the most qualified candidates may be lacking in the two areas that you can’t teach: motivation and drive.
While being qualified for a particular vacancy is still a top priority, there is more wiggle room for personality to shine. The question that you need to ask yourself is, “How can I make a good impression to show the team that I can fit into their corporate culture?” Research from behavioral psychologists like Robert Cialdini, who is best known for his research on influence and persuasion, suggests a simple solution that can be complex to execute…be likable.
No company promotes a corporate culture full of needy, greedy, lazy, self-centered, tardy, unprofessional, and difficult to work with staff. Following the principals derived from research by behavioral psychologists, such as the aforementioned Dr. Cialdini, there are actions that candidates can take to increase their likability and, in turn, increase their perceived cultural fit.
Dress the Part
Although no one likes to admit it, appearance plays a part in cultural fit. Research has shown that there is an unconscious shortcut that causes us to assign positive traits to those who are physically attractive. This phenomenon holds true across gender lines even when evaluating someone of the same sex. While we need to work with what our mammas gave us, we can control certain features of our appearance, such as dressing the part.
The general rule of thumb is to dress one “level” nicer than what the situation calls for. Try to find out the dress code and take it one step further. The idea is to take the corporate policy and one up it, just a little bit. If the dress code is business casual (button down and a pair of slacks), then go formal (suit and tie). If the dress code is casual (T-shirt and jeans) then go business casual.
When in doubt, err on the side of dressing more formal. Most companies’ corporate cultures include being detail oriented, representing the brand in a positive way, and working in a team environment. By dressing similar, but a little better than others in the organization, you are portraying professionalism and social similarity which can immediately make you more likable to the people you are meeting.
The only time that dressing formal can backfire is if the corporate culture is ultra-relaxed. Showing up in a suit while others are walking around in flip-flops and tank tops may make the interviewers think you are “stiff” and in turn harder to relate to.
It is probably no surprise that we tend to like people who are similar to us. There are many types of similarities that cause us to be more likable, such as dress (which we just spoke about), opinions (i.e. – which football team to cheer for), interests (i.e. – hobbies), lifestyle choices (i.e. – being a working parent) and backgrounds (i.e. – growing up in the same neighborhood).
How does this translate to being more likable during the interviewing process? We can assume that those who have been appointed to have the authority to hire are trusted to represent and replicate their corporate culture. They are seen as examples of success and have been given the power to replicate their success by hiring the next top performer. The more similarities you can tie to those who are exemplary of what is means to be successful within the company, the more you will be perceived as being successful. In other words, if the hiring managers are seen as being successful members of the company and you are similar to the hiring managers, then you should be successful as well. It is much easier to replicate previous successes than it is to reinvent the wheel.
This is where being qualified for the vacancy helps immensely. Be able to draw similarities from the job description to your job responsibilities and achievements. Talk about comparable challenges that you have encountered that are parallel to those that the company is facing (and offer solutions). Talk about the trends in your industry and where you see things heading. Talk about related technical skills or systems that you have used along with initiatives that you have led that fit with the current vacancy.
Not all similarities need to be business related. Perhaps you and the interviewer used to play the same sport in high school, share the same taste in music, or went to the same college. When traveling with my wife’s side of the family, no matter how far we are away from home someone always comments on my brother in law’s Penn State hat, usually screaming the school chant. Sometimes the most obscure similarities make you the most likable. For example, what are the chances that you and the interview both have a passion for bobsledding or underwater photography? Sharing membership in a small group can have its advantages.
If you are struggling to find shared commonalities to talk about, take a look at your surroundings. See a picture of the interviewer’s family? Bring up their kids and talk about yours. Do they have a mug with a golden retriever on their desk? Ask if they also have a dog. It doesn’t take much effort to find and exploit these similarities. At the end of the day, you are making a living working in the same industry, are most likely working for a competitor in a similar capacity, and interviewing for a specialized role on a similar career path that you share with the interviewing team.
A Little Flattery Goes a Long Way
People like feeling good and like to be recognized for accomplishments. We also tend to like people who like us. Taking this one step further, research suggests that this continues to hold true even when the person being flattered fully realizes that the flatterer has something to gain from their perceived likability.
Armed with this knowledge, approach your interviews with positivity and compliments. Talk about the successes of the company and talk about how exciting it must have been for the interviewers to be a part of the company’s successes. Google the names of the interviewers or research them on LinkedIn. Perhaps they have a publication (or a blog…wink, wink) that you can reference and give praise to. If you can’t find anything, use the obvious. Compliment their outfit, “I love the tie,” or simply compliment the company as a whole, “I have heard a lot of great things about the company and appreciate you for giving me the opportunity to interview for this position.”
Try not to be too overbearing as there is a fine line between dropping a few flattering comments and coming off as being desperate.
Find Common Goals
Achieving resolutions to common problems brings us together. Even our enemies can become our friends when we are faced with a common problem that requires mutual effort to solve the issue, thus increasing our (and their) likability. The good news is that the interviewers are not your enemies, in fact, they may even be your proponents based on previous contact or excitement over the qualifications that you presented on your CV. Throughout the interview process, it is important for the team to feel a sense of perceived comradery where they can envision you as being a part of the team.
To achieve the feeling of comradery, try to identify the team’s pain points and, as mentioned before, offer solutions. A solutions-based approach is the key ingredient to the recipe. The better you are able to identify and tackle challenges, the more the interviewers will perceive you as being part of the team. The best case scenario would be to talk about how you were involved in solving the same or similar problem in your current or past positions. Not only are you offering solutions, but you are showing them that you have experience with an executable plan that can be modified and replicated to bring immediate value.
Relating to corporate culture, most organizations look for employees who are able to work independently, without much direct supervision, while also being able to collaborate internally, either within their group or cross-functionally with other teams. With this in mind, the best solutions involve your individual contributions along with how you would interact with other team members. Perhaps you would delegate and motivate junior level staff while you are off working on a specific task. Maybe you would be meeting with the department heads to create a plan that would split up tasks that best fit each person’s, or department’s, skill sets. Either way, identify the pain point and offer a solution that includes your individual contributions along with your interactions with the team.
Be Associated with the Positives
Another unconscious shortcut that we use is our tendency to associate people (and objects) to their surroundings and actions. For example, if we are driving down the road and we see someone driving a brand new Ferrari in the other lane. Most of us would associate the driver of the car with wealth and success. However, the driver could simply be someone who is valeting the car for the owner, or perhaps it is an admin from the dealership who is moving inventory around. The same is true when it comes to the company we keep. We assume that people have similar personalities and traits to those they keep in their inner circles. What is helpful to know is that the power of association goes both ways, influencing both positive and negative connections.
In the context of interviewing, we only need to associate ourselves with positive outcomes to produce a positive influence. In this spirit, it is advisable to keep the conversation positive and focus on successes. Talk about personal achievement, but don’t leave out team or company achievements as well. For example, working in the drug research field, although you may have played only a small role in the clinical trial, it is powerful to say that you were a part of the team involved in getting ABC drug approved by the FDA. You are surrounding yourself with success which in turns makes you more likely to be perceived as successful.
The principal can also be applied when utilizing internal referrals. Candidates who are referred by internal employees are exponentially more likely to be hired compared to outside applicants. The idea is that top producers keep other top producers in their network and if they the employee is willing to put their reputation on the line by referring a potential candidate, then there is a good chance that the candidate is someone of a similar caliber. Taking this one step further, even if a friend of a friend works at the company, it could be useful to “name drop” in order to make the association. However, keep in mind that this only works when the person doing the referring is perceived in a positive way. Using a below average performer as an internal referral will surely backfire. No one wants to hire the friend of the guy that is about to get the axe.
Making a positive connection can be extremely helpful in determining cultural fit. Using the principals of association, the referral coming from a top producing employee most likely shares similar traits of the referrer. This is probably the easiest of the shortcuts to determine cultural fit because a positive association is created from very early in the process and it is harder to change an impression after the initial one is made. It is important, however, to continue to exude those traits throughout the interview process to add validation to the assumptions. Another benefit of having an internal referral is simply being able to pick their brain on what challenges the team is facing, which will allow you to get a jump start on creating a possible solution to offer.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning the importance of being cognizant of the reputation of those who you provide as professional references. In accordance with the association principal, you want to be associated with others that will provide a positive influence. Avoid providing references from those whose opinions are not well respected, even if you are confident that they will sing your praises. You want to be perceived by others as walking amongst giants.
After discussing some of the ways to be perceived as being more likable and aligned with corporate culture, the most important tip is to be yourself. It shouldn’t take a lot of effort to be likable. If it is, then maybe the position (or company) is not right for you. The worst thing you can do is to pretend to be someone you’re not during the interview to then have to assimilate yourself with a company that doesn’t align with your wants and needs. The more you are interested in a company/position, the harder it is to detach yourself from the short-term benefits which, in turn, makes it more difficult to assess long-term happiness. Luckily there is a telltale sign that things may not be as perfect as they appear.
There will be a lot of emotions floating around during the interview process. It is common to feel nervous or critical of yourself, second-guessing some of your responses. It is normal to want the position more the further in the process you become (which is partially to justify the time you spent with the interview process). Regardless of the emotions that pop up, it is important to identify the nature of the feeling. One of the telltale signs that a position may not be right for you is when you are trying too hard to be liked. There will be a feeling in the pit your stomach, either when you are knee deep in the interview or afterward when you are reflecting on the conversations. If something doesn’t feel right, it is worth evaluating all of the emotions bouncing around your brain to see if your “want” of having the job matches your personal “need” of finding satisfaction with your career. Remember, an interview is a two-way street and the company has to be likable as well, aligning with your goals and personality. There is no harm in giving yourself an advantage by being a little more likable, but the key is to do so in a way that protects your career interests.
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