By Irving H. Buchen

Is it too much to ask? Interviews that are not perfunctory, mechanical, and mundane? Not only for the applicant, but also for the hiring authority chained to ask the same dumb questions again and again? No wonder Google opted for far- out, zany queries. The wacky clearly trumps the bland.

Oh, and let us not forget the punitive practice of intentionally asking slippery and booby-trapped questions, for which there is no acceptable answer. So you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Meanwhile, applicants find themselves in an increasingly arbitrary game where the odds are stacked against them.

Generally, we do not fully appreciate the extent to which adversarial relationships dominate the interview process. It begins with the odds being uneven. There is the minority position of the solitary candidate pitted against the majority position of the hiring committee. Comfort zones are one sided too. The candidate has to learn the names, size up, and play to the obsessions of a whole group, while the interview group, in turn, only has to focus on one person. The interview group members also can rest and take turns, whereas the candidate is always on. Above all, the candidate is an outsider; the others are insiders. Indeed, if the former does not begin to increasingly sound like the latter, no offer will be made. Finally, the resources are uneven. The applicant’s research skills are no match for the background and social media checks of the hiring authority and its HR staff. In short, the company holds all the cards.

For the equity of an even playing field to stand a chance, three shifts have to occur. The first is the applicant has to accept the initiative of making the interview interesting, and should include that additional dimension to his or her interview prep. That is done partly out of self-defense–to prevent the process from becoming totally deadening–and partly because we cannot count on the interviewers to do it.

Second, this extra effort has to justify itself by offering an extra yield: namely, making the interview more interesting is really a way of making the candidate more appealing—projecting an increasingly attractive and increasingly interesting candidate.

Third, the story becomes the candidate’s basic mode of response. Interview prep has to become largely a detailed script. To take over and rescue the interview, the candidate has to generate his or her own questions, which, in effect, creates a give-and-take on his or her own terms and turf–a dramatized version of Q&A.

Perhaps, the illustrations below may be clarifying. Here are answers inspired by mischief and transparency and carried forward by oblique information sharing to boring and predictable questions.

Q: Tell us something about yourself.

A: Evidently I am very likeable. I never thought I was—still don’t. But in the third grade Mrs. Sweeny surveyed the class and I turned out to be the most likeable—not the most popular Mrs. Sweeney insisted. They were not the same thing.

Well, everyone went out of their way to help me. I remember my first job as an apprentice dispatcher. The next in line showed me the ropes. Later she reviewed and corrected my first completed dispatch plan for which I received great praise. She never did that for anyone else.

And that pattern happily has followed me to this day. In every new job, every new promotion, every new favored assignment, I have been welcomed, assisted, coached; even every once in a while saving my ass. So whatever success I have had to date has been linked to my being likeable. But I still don’t believe I am.

Q: What is your biggest weakness?

A: I am a sore loser. I can’t accept defeat or being passed over. If I don’t get what I want or what I am going after, I get very angry, curse under my breadth, and kick the file cabinet. If anyone tries to console me, I tell them to bug off.

Finally, I calm down, pull myself together, and try to put myself in the head of who made me unhappy. I know it is not related to personality because I am likeable. What then could it be? Three images of me surface in my boss’s mind:

  1. He is always in a hurry. He wants instant recognition and reward. He can’t wait to pay his dues and put in his time. He thinks he can promote himself.
  2. He thinks he walks on water. He is arrogant. He thinks everyone should step aside and make room for the infant prodigy to ascend the throne.
  3. He is a sore loser–a bad sport. He thinks that everyone is so fearful that he will have a fit and throw a tantrum that we will then give him everything he wants.

Shocked and sobered by what I had imagined, I decided to meet and talk to my manager and confirm my projections. It turned me around.

Q: Were do you see yourself 3-5 years from now?

A: Here and on the top of my game. I am a compulsive planner and schemer. I play chess every day–a two-part company version. The first part is micro and deals with my division and manipulating all the players. The second part is macro and deals with the executive team and the future of the company by 2050.

I am also a member of the World Future Society. Religiously, I attend their annual meeting here and abroad. In other words, I am a card-carrying futurist.

Self motivating questions: 

Do I plan? When do I not?
If you did not have a significant future for yourself and for me, I would not be here interviewing today.

Will it work?
It has to; it certainly is no worse than mouthing dumb answers to dumb questions. Is it unfair? Of course it is–it is hard enough and nerve-wracking being an applicant without assuming the burden of sustaining an interesting interview. Can it be fun? Only if you know the interview game and are clever and mischievous enough to play it to your advantage. Will it be memorable? That is exactly what it and you should want to be.