Cavemen didn’t interview.
There were no interviews on the savannah: “Say, Og, we’re a tribe of hunter-gatherers between pastures and we’re looking to add a gatherer to our clan. Can you tell me about your experience in berries?”
Many of the features of modern social life — and even work-life — were present back there on the savannah: friends, family, likes and dislikes, peer pressure, dating, and even working together for the hunt or harvest. But no interviews.
There are no interviews in the Bible, either. You’ll look in vain for the Apostles or the Maccabees being asked for references, or quizzed on the annual volume of water flowing through the Nile.
George Washington didn’t interview for his job; he actually ducked out of the room entirely when John Adams brought up his name in Congress as the perfect candidate for Commander-in-Chief.
From cavemen until about the time of the Civil War, in fact, your ancestors didn’t have jobs and didn’t go on job interviews. Instead, your folks in the “Old Country” grew up, lived, and worked within 10 miles of where they were born. Almost everyone they met was from their own tribe. And like everybody else, they worked for the king, the church, the army, or, most likely, were farmers, serfs, or slaves.
As late as 1860, farmers made up two-thirds of the U.S. workforce. It was only after the Civil War and industrialization that enormous new factories producing steel, shoes, railroad cars, or pork bellies, rose up across the country. It was these entirely new institutions that created what we’ve come to think of as “a job.”
Statistically, then, it was not until your great-grandparents’ time that your forebears started going on job interviews. They most likely did “blue-collar” interviews for manual and physical work — tests of their ability to hold a shovel or pull a lever, an assessment of their likelihood to show up on time and sober, and a confirmation of their ability to follow English language instructions. Coming from their small world “down on the farm” where they knew the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, to a world with hundreds or thousands of potential bosses and coworkers, was a change in scale and scope as terrifying as it was exhilarating.
For most Americans, their parents were the first generation in their family who went on “white-collar” interviews: facing questions about teamwork, diligence, abstract reasoning, college preparation, and the odd brain teaser. Immediately after World War II, the interview process tended to resemble a combination of army life and social club admissions — a very impersonal, detached, almost clinical measurement of the man, along with some discreet inquiries into who you were related to and where your family was from.
Today’s American workplace, by contrast, is a bewildering world in which startups run by college kids are more prestigious than century-old names. The familiar hierarchies of the past had the oldest, wisest, most respected people at the top of the pyramid, not some scrawny geeks. In recent decades, the disruption of old companies, old manners, and old loyalties, and the rise of a very fast-paced modern American workplace confuses and confounds many of our social cues, expectations, and tribal mores. All of which upends our expectations, and our standing, in the social circles that make up human life.
This very brief history lesson is a prelude to a central point of Ladders 2019 Interviews Guide: interviews aren’t normal for humans. They’re not normal for human psychology or physiology. They’re not normal for humans’ social expectations. They weren’t a normal feature of any human society, anywhere on the planet, prior to about 100 years ago. They are deeply strange experiences for a wide variety of reasons, and the sooner that you understand that any and all of your anxieties about interviews come from your biology, anthropology, physiology and genealogy, and none of it is because you are “bad” at interviewing, the sooner you and I can take productive steps to make you “interview anxiety proof”. So stick with me.
We humans developed, as a species, in small tribes back on that savannah. For most of our time on earth, it’s been easy to separate other humans into camps of friend or foe. Among the friends, we had close family or distant family. Among foes: dead or alive. And the social interactions we are familiar with — sucking up to the top ape, joshing with the other fellas and gals in the pack, finding our place in the pecking order — have their roots in this time when we lived in these small tribes.
For almost our entire existence as a species, unfamiliar strangers were dangerous, not potential future coworkers. Strangers provoked anxiety, uncertainty and confusion, not excitement about potentially working together. There was no need to make introductions or small talk with people you didn’t know, because everyone you knew, knew you back in return. A small boxy room full of strangers, or even a single stranger, triggered the ‘fight or flight’ response — our primordial safety mechanism that kept us from getting killed before we got back to the campfire.
Of course, humans do a lot of things in the modern world that we didn’t do back then. If we can get comfortable with very unnatural activities such as skydiving, taking elevators, or riding a bike, surely we could adjust to interviewing? But humans adjust to some changes better than others. When it comes to technological change — picking up new tools, technology gadgets, or other material things — we pick up expertise pretty fast and get comfortable with daily use amazingly quickly.
But when it comes to interactions with other humans, we primarily learn how to handle these by mimicking the behavior we see from parents and peers. The right way to behave, what to expect when having a conversation, what’s acceptable and not acceptable when talking to strangers, how to present yourself to peers — all of these come from social learning. You try something out, and then your parents, who were taught by their parents, who were taught by their parents, correct you and teach you what to expect.
So how to act at a dinner, while playing sports, on the hunt, while farming in the garden, with your kids, or in a war — all of these have been taught, and handed down, for generations immemorial.
Interviews combine an important event that has far-reaching and consequential outcomes, with little understanding of what should be expected. And that is a marvelous recipe for performance anxiety. Indeed, for almost all of human history, feeling nervous — or alarmed! — was the correct response when confronted by a stranger in a small room peppering you with questions. It was almost always a telling sign that you were in danger somehow. Get Out! exclaimed the 2018 Oscar winner on just this theme of the danger of those outside of your tribe.
As a result, without a common social understanding to refer to, it’s difficult to know how to feel about the interview process:
The interview went long — is that good or bad?
They haven’t called back in 4 days — is that good or bad?
They’ve asked me in for a fourth round of interviews to meet more people — is that good or bad?
Interviews are not normal for humans. They are awkward, unusual, and uncomfortable. As a result, your anxiety is normal… expected, even. It’s not an accident, it’s not just you, it’s not that you have a uniquely bad reaction to interviews. The truth of the matter is that the nature of interviewing is so unlike anything else we do in our lives, or that our families did in their lives before we came along, that extreme discomfort should be considered the normal reaction to interviews. Even the most successful, most powerful, people I’ve helped over the years feel nervous and self-conscious about interviews, especially when they’re out of practice. Until you’ve personally done several hundred interviews on either side of the table, anxiety and nerves will be a part of the interview process for you. So it’s more than just common, it’s universal. You’ll need to manage it, not hope that you can wish it away.
Three most important things
An interview should answer whether you are right for the hiring firm, the role, and your future boss. What are her specific needs from the role, and is there a particular style in which she is looking to have the work done? Do you match up with the title, pay, skills, role, span of control, prior experience, capabilities, communication style, and work cadence that your boss needs or expects for the role? Ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that there is a match between your qualities, and her desires, is half of the battle.
The other half is determining if the firm is right for you. Interviews are absolutely not one-way streets, and too often, candidates allow their questions to be afterthoughts. Does the role make sense as a logical next step on your career path? Does it match up with your ambitions and direction? Does the company meet your desires on company size, culture, and pace?
These are obvious questions, yet they are often left unanswered in the dramatic whirlwind of interviewing courtship. I have counseled otherwise bright and capable professionals who were romanced through a recruiting process to take a job entirely outside of their interests or plans. There’s a reason so many new hires don’t work out, and the “swept off your feet” interview process is a culprit. I’d guess that by 20 years into their careers, most American professionals have at least one mulligan job. Has it ever happened to you? If not, you’re stronger than most.
To best determine your ability to do what the role takes: ask them. It’s advice so simple as to barely qualify as advice, were it not for the hundreds of times I’ve asked people going to interviews “what are the most important things they’re looking from the role,” only to be met with a blank stare or a mumble.
So… ask them.
When you’re setting up the interview, ask the HR person, recruiter or hiring manager: “Which three things are most important to success in this role?” You only want to know three, because that’ll be about the number of factors you’ll be able to manage throughout multiple days of interviews. It also forces prioritization on the part of the hiring company. Sure, there are dozens of things they’d like from this hire, but indicating to you which are the three most important reveals how they will be making the decision and how they are thinking about performance in the future. Further, whether it’s reviewing your work history in the context of these three items, or comparing the varying and various answers you get from interviewers as to whether those are their priorities, to confirming with the boss after your interview that she heard your points loud and clear, three is a magic number for making your case.
It may not surprise you to know that the company will gladly tell you which three things are most important to success in the job. They’ll be pleasantly surprised you asked. Because so few people start off the interview process by focusing on the company’s needs rather than their own abilities, you’ll stand out from the start. It’s an encouraging sign to the interviewers that your style is to understand them better, before talking about yourself.
When the HR person or recruiter provides you with the three most important factors, you should do a careful review. Do these three performance factors match up with your strengths and what you’re looking to do next? If all three are right on target, then that’s terrific, and you’ll be prepared to nail each interview thoroughly.
Conversely, if all three are completely off the mark, your course of action is simple — you let the recruiter know that there really isn’t a fit because your background or career path doesn’t match up. You may be tempted to fudge a bit, on the theory that getting your foot in the door is better than no interview at all, but this is not a productive approach. Informing the company and HR team upfront of the mismatch impresses with your self-awareness, your respect for their time, and your good judgment. By showing your good manners as a candidate, you’re more likely to be made aware of other opportunities, not less. Especially if you position your feedback as “I’m not right for that role because of reasons one, two and three, but if you have something come open that requires x, y and z, I’d be a better candidate for that kind of opportunity,” you are setting yourself up for success by communicating proactively and clearly.
The trouble comes, of course, if there is a mix among the three factors — one or two of the three do not match up, while the others do line up with your background or interests. In these cases, it’s your business judgment as to whether and how hard to pursue. Raise these issues with the HR person or recruiter prior to heading in for the interview. It could be that they’ve misstated their priorities, and will clarify for you in a way that makes a go / no-go decision easier to make. But, ultimately, the call will be yours as to whether or not proceeding is a good use of your time, and theirs.
This article is adapted from Ladders 2019 Interviews Guide: 74 Questions That Will Land You The Job (Ladders, Inc. , 2019). Purchase the Kindle Single for immediate download here.*
*Disclosure: Ladders from time-to-time uses affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, we will receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase.