Most advice about job interviews is about how to assess a candidate’s skills, if you’re the interviewer, and how to demonstrate your skills if you’re the candidate – so that you will come across as smart and motivated. And there, right out of the gate, we’ve got a problem. Because the most important thing to get across in an interview is not that you are smart and motivated – it’s that you are trustworthy.
Trustworthiness is the fundamental trait that people – not just interviewers – automatically and unconsciously look for in others. It will make or break you. And as countless studies by Harvard’s Amy Cuddy and others have shown, there are two qualities you need to possess to be seen as trustworthy: warmth and competence.
Warmth signals that you have good intentions toward the perceiver, and competence signals that you can act on those good intentions. A warm and competent interviewee is a valuable potential ally. But a competent interviewee who doesn’t project warmth is a potentially formidable foe – the kind of person who may not be a team player, and who may cause trouble for you down the road.
So, if you follow the usual interview advice and focus all your energy on highlighting your competence, and forget to telegraph warmth, your interviewer is likely to end up a bit wary of you. Sure, your interviewer may only be asking about your skills, but that’s what they’ve been trained to do. It doesn’t mean you can’t answer the question they are actually asking, even if they don’t realize it.
Let’s look at two of the most common questions people are asked in interviews, and how you can use these opportunities to convey warmth and competence in your answers.
Tell me about yourself
This is a great question for showcasing competence, and most people are only too happy to launch into the why-I’m-so-great speech they’ve been practicing in their bathroom mirrors. But it’s also a great question for sending two powerful signals of warmth: modesty and gratitude.
Let’s take modesty first. I know it’s tempting to toot the heck out of your own horn, but research shows that if you exhibit some modesty with respect to your skills and abilities, people will add, on average, 20-30% to their estimate of your competence. Go overboard with the self-promotion, and they’ll subtract the same amount.
It would be too much to say: “I am really great with clients. They love me.”
The modest version would be: “I’ve worked hard to understand what clients want, and I’m proud of the successes I’ve had with them.”
As for showing gratitude, you did not get where you are alone, and you should be explicit about that. When you mention your abilities and strengths, be sure to also mention the mentoring you received, and the opportunities that others created for you to develop those strengths. Talk about how fortunate you have been in the help and guidance you have received.
Why did you leave your last job?
This is a question that is really, really easy to screw up. Everyone says that bad-mouthing your former boss or organization is a bad idea, and they are right. So the advice they’ll give you instead is to focus on how you are “looking for new challenges” and trying to develop yourself in a new role. This is fine advice if you only care about competence – but notice how much “I” there is in those answers: I’m looking for new challenges. I want to develop myself. What about the people you left behind? Where is your loyalty, your sense of responsibility?
(Two key indicators of warmth.)
To demonstrate loyalty, talk about how painful it was for you to leave (even if it wasn’t) – how you and your colleagues looked out for one another. Mention that if there were a way for you to have continued developing and challenging yourself in your last job, you would have stayed. If it seems like it was easy for you to walk out on your last team, then they’ll assume it won’t be hard for you to walk away from them, either.
To show responsibility, there are two things you need to convey. First (and most obviously) that you are eager for new responsibilities, and second, that you did not leave anyone in the lurch when you left your old job. In other words, you need to make it clear that you took your responsibilities seriously in your last job too. Perhaps mentioning that you had considered leaving sooner but wanted to see a major project to it’s completion, or to wait until your replacement was ready to fill your role.
Another powerful way to project warmth and competence is through the questions you ask your interviewer. Specifically, you can use questions to send three of the warmest signals you can send: interest in the perceiver, affirmation of their skills and abilities, and empathy.
Asking the questions that send the right signals can create valuable opportunities to come across as both warm and competent. For example, you might show interest in the interviewer by asking, “So, how did you come to be [current role] at [company]?” or “What are you currently working on?” The answers might reveal similarities in your background, experience, or goals, or give you the opportunity to express empathy and understanding regarding shared challenges. You can also affirm your interviewer by asking, “What advice would you give to someone in [role you’re applying for]?” Research shows that, counter to our intuitions, asking for advice and admitting what you don’t know makes you seem both warm and competent.
Take the time to think very deliberately about how you will convey your warmth in your next interview – or in your next call with a new client or colleague. It’s difficult to exaggerate the benefits of coming across as trustworthy, or the opportunities lost when you don’t.