There are few professional rituals as steadfast as the job interview. But there is one way in which interviews are changing: They're accounting for personality. These characteristics are called soft skills, or emotional intelligence. Assessing soft skills is about determining if a candidate is someone the employer actually wants to have around five days a week, says Daniel Flamberg, managing director of tech-centric ad agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler.
"I ask a lot of questions," says Flamberg. "I look for little things on the resume. 'Oh, you're a hockey player, tell me something about that.' I'm looking to see, do you really care?" He's trying to sniff out how you explain yourself. Are you just tossing out personal tidbits to seem well-rounded, or do you have real interests to share with other people?
It's tough to know when you're being pressed on your soft skills because they're so often discussed abstractly, says Allison Hemming, CEO of digital talent agency The Hired Guns. Her team strives to "take that amorphousness of soft skills out, and put some tight [boundaries around] things that are really important, that are hard to quantify," Hemming says. "Like leadership. Like optimism."
Here’s a quick primer to help you decode what interviewers are really asking.
Don’t call it teamwork, cautions Hemming. According to Hemming, when an employer says they value "teamwork," oftentimes they’re really looking for what Hemming calls "coalition building."
"Getting teams to follow ideas, getting people to work together toward a common mission—there's being a good team member," says Hemming, and that's a great quality. "But there's also individuals who have the quality of coalition building, which makes those people a force multiplier in that organization." Oftentimes employers ask about interpersonal skills in a way that most normal, well-adjusted people would think they qualify. But be sure to ask whether their definition of "teamwork" is inter-team or intra-team—or both.
Another reason employers ask about teamwork is to ascertain how much leadership you need (or don't need) to be productive and effective. "[One] question that I ask," says Flamberg, "is ‘if you were writing operating instructions for your next boss, and the goal of the operating instructions is to have you be at optimum productivity and optimum happiness—what would the instructions be?"
Flamberg has found that how a candidate answers that question is a good indicator of how a person sees themselves fitting in on your team. "It reveals certain kinds of ambitions and reveals where people place themselves in the food chain," he says.
This is one of the more common soft skills probed in interviews. As this list from Business Management Daily shows, questions designed to gauge your "initiative" hew to a formula; the interviewer usually asks you to give an example when a task led you outside of the parameters of your job, and how you handled that.
But make no mistake, says Hemming—this question is all about hustle.
"We start all searches around The Hired Guns' DNA, which is, Are you a builder?" Hemming says. "Do you like to do first-time-ever things? Do you like to super-size? And when you run into a problem, can you tinker with it to the point where you can rethink the challenge and pivot and get there?"
Answering a question like this should be easy: Most companies are looking for people who are willing to go above and beyond if necessary, and you want to show that you’re that person.
Spotting "hustle" questions should be just as easy. Except when it’s not. Take this sample Google interview question version below, which personnel boss Laszlo Bock gave to The Guardian. In interviews at Google, he says, candidates are asked unexpected question like, "What shall we have for dinner this evening?"
Don't say "I don't mind" or "I'm easy, really," or "What would you like?" or any of that rubbish. If we're going to solve the dinner problem your opinion is required, so stand up and give it. This is the kind of "emergent leadership" that Google wants: the willingness to take charge when required, and not take charge when not.
These are the real curveballs—the ones that make your palms sweat and make you wonder if there’s some hidden meaning or quality that you’re supposed to display in order to finish with aplomb. They can be about anything, really. Some examples I found:
- If you were a burger, what kind would you be?
- Have you ever been on a boat?
- A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?
It’s natural to overthink these questions, but in most cases you’re better off not reading too much into them. In many cases, they’re just meant to see how well you deal with something unexpected—the trick isn’t necessarily the answer itself, but how well you handle yourself in giving one. The interviewer is trying to see what's behind the carefully cultivated persona you project.
Daniel Flamberg likes to do this by asking candidates what pisses them off. Going into a job interview, "everybody's got their game face on," says Flamberg. "They've got the seven interview tips at the front of their mind. You're trying to get some little glimpse of reality."
Similarly, Allison Hemming and her Hired Guns team like to ask candidates how lucky they are—a candidate that believes they’re lucky is probably an optimist; one who believes they create luck probably have an entirely different disposition—which answer is desirably depends entirely on the job, of course.
Don't wait for the interviewer to probe your soft skills—bring them right into the fore yourself by sharing the right kind of personal details. As the U.K.’s National Career Service notes:
Don’t underestimate examples from situations out of the workplace—if you’ve got kids you’ll be used to managing your time, working under pressure, being creative and communicating well.
If you're an introvert or you get anxious easily in social situations, try starting the discussion via email before the interview, so you can get some of your persona across in writing. "Interview questions can be done all kinds of ways," says Hemming. "Don't put your blinders on and think it has to be oral." Her agency uses a lengthy written questionnaire as part of their vetting process.
"Getting written interview questions back gives you a sense of the person, and how they think and how they're able to persuade. I mean, that's the ultimate in persuasive argument, right? You're vying for a position and saying 'here's why I'm the right person.'"