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9/25/16 - Why You Should Always Go Off-Script in a Job Interview

by Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson 

You’ve just landed an interview for your dream job. If you’re like most people, you’ll spend hours, perhaps days, preparing for that interview. You’ll research the company and industry, anticipate the questions you’ll be asked, and rehearse the perfect answers. You’ve probably followed all the interviewing best practices: be yourself, dress appropriately, focus on your strengths, don’t interrupt, and prepare questions in advance.

But, in spite of your careful preparation, your interviewer might not evaluate your skills, ability, and potential using an equally thorough process. Rather than carefully analyzing your resume and engaging in deep conversation, a busy interviewer might rely on split-second impressions. Indeed, psychologist Ellen Langer shows that just as people shift to “autopilot” during routine tasks such as driving to work, they may go through interviews and other spontaneous social interactions in a similarly automated fashion.

The problem occurs when people process information through what psychologists refer to as the peripheral route. When they follow this route, they go on instinct and use tidbits of information rather than the full arsenal of data they have in front of them. In fact, the vast body of research suggests that all of us are vulnerable, at times, to taking the peripheral route when our attention is somewhat compromised — perhaps because we’re rushed, tired, hungry, overwhelmed, stressed, or simply engaging in a well-rehearsed routine, like an interview.

How can you ensure that an interviewer sees you for who you are and your unique characteristics are noted? Through our research on how people form impressions about experts and how people manage envy, we identify four strategies to help you turn around an interview.

Disrupt the script. Although an interview may appear to be a spontaneous conversation, both the interviewer and the interviewee are often following preprogrammed scripts. The interviewer may have a standard protocol that they’re following — in fact, this is a best practice that ensures that each candidate is screened through the same process. They might ask standard questions such as, “Tell me about your previous experience” and “What you are looking for in a job,” or they might use a walk-through of your resume as the basis of their script.

As the interviewee responds with carefully prepped answers, they can quickly go from charming to robotic. When we’ve observed MBA students, their responses are almost too smooth. Sometimes, they answer too quickly, without even a pause to think about what was asked — revealing that they’re delivering a rehearsed answer rather than engaging in a conversation that feels genuine and interactive. Instead, pause after the interviewer asks a question — even if you’ve practiced a response. Listen for and reuse a few key words from the interviewer’s question in your own answer to signal that you’re building on the interviewer’s statement. By interrupting your own scripts and building on the discussion, you can make the conversation flow more organically, allowing the interviewer to process information more deeply. One of our managers shared another technique he used to disrupt the script by stating, “Let me tell you what’s not on my resume.” That got the interviewer’s attention, since the interviewer stopped mindlessly looking at the resume.

Make a personal connection. Whether it’s discovering that you attended neighboring small town high schools or both visit the same vacation spot, these off-script moments are more likely to lead to an interpersonal connection. This is due to the mere connection effect: If you can find even one point of commonality in few moments of interacting, you can shift from outsider to insider in the interviewer’s mind. As an insider, you’ll receive the benefit of the doubt, as compared to an outsider who’s quickly judged and dismissed. One manager described how she scans an interviewer’s office for any photos or pictures and asks about them: “So, you’re a Blackhawks fan?”

Then, try to get beyond surface similarities. Demonstrate that you share their higher-order goals. Leigh once hired someone because her question was, “What does it feel like to have written a book?” That question showed that she was passionate about research and writing — the very same goals that motivated Leigh. If you’re in tech, you might ask how the interviewer felt leading a cutting edge project; if you’re in sales, ask how they managed to win over a particularly tough customer.

Become a partner. If you’re dealing with an antagonistic interviewer who has automatic negative assumptions about you, a “connection” may be nearly impossible. In our research, we’ve observed how psychological threat, like people’s insecurities and envy, affects their judgment. Perhaps they just don’t like the people who’ve typically held your position. Or maybe they’ve read your vita and view you as competition. The threatened interviewer focuses only on your weaknesses and perceived slights, leaving you to meet impossible standards.

In response, try this strategy that we’ve drawn from the research of Dr. Abraham Tesser. Rather than focusing on common goals that could elicit a threatened response, highlight your distinctive talents — skills in unique areas that don’t undermine the interviewer’s expertise. Then, show how your expertise benefits them, opening up the potential for partnership. For example, when one junior consultant works with potential clients who are industry experts, he’d frame his expertise in a nonthreatening way: “I clearly do not have the decades of experience in the industry that you do, but I am a supply chain expert, and this has allowed me to achieve cost savings for each of the companies I’ve worked with as a consultant.” Rather than suggesting that he knew more than the client, he framed it as knowing something different — which could help the clients showcase their existing expertise rather than replacing it.

Call out the elephant in the room. A benevolent but busy decision maker might have formed negative beliefs about your potential for reasons that they are uncomfortable talking about or, perhaps, are not even aware of. We suggest surfacing these unconscious perceptions and making it comfortable for people to address the taboo issue. Communicating about the potential objection reveals self-awareness and courage, and it also creates an opening so you can provide the clear evidence to dismiss it.

For example, one of our colleagues was from Korea and had a strong accent. “Will they notice?” she worried. Our response: “They’d have to be deaf not to notice.” We told her to be forthcoming and say, “I have an accent. I’m aware of that. Still, I’ve received top teaching evaluations. Here is what I’ve used to be successful in the classroom…” She got hired for the job.

Good jobs are few and far between, and you’re paying both a financial and emotional price if you have the credentials but aren’t getting opportunities because of quick judgments. The toughest interviewer to crack is not the one with the tough questions but the one who’s operating on automatic assumptions. The recommendations we’ve suggested will help you get past the quick impressions, and steer the interview in your favor.


Tanya Menon (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is an associate professor of Management and Human Resources at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Her book with Leigh Thompson, Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits (Harvard Business Review Press), is forthcoming this year.

Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. She is the author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (HBR Press, 2013) and coauthor of Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits (forthcoming, HBR Press, 2016).