Go to Menu Tell 'Em What They Need To Hear
By Nick Corcodilos

What is the biggest risk you take when you go on an interview? What could you do to really put the kibosh on your career and totally screw up all you've worked for -- and in the process shoot your profession in the foot, maybe in the heart?

Tell 'em what they want to hear.

That's right. Be too much the sycophant in a job interview (or in your job) and you'll kill the one thing that could put you over the top in your career: your unique point of view.

Now, before this gets stretched out of context, let's deal with what I don't mean. Any successful worker (or manager) strives to anticipate his boss's (or his customer's) needs and then to deliver on them. If you're not a bit of a mind reader, you won't be a successful team member, either. This is part of working smart. But telling them what they need to hear (and doing what they need you to do) is different from compromising your intelligence and talent in an effort to keep a relationship rolling along without incident.

Telling them what they want to hear requires little more than being able to recite a job description; addressing what they need to hear requires responsibility and judgment.

In today's highly competitive (yes, that's an understatement) business world, employers aren't just looking for hands. They're not even looking just for brains. Managers desperately need people who can help them figure out where to go next and how to get there. The problem is, this requires careful study and thought on the part of the employee. It also requires taking risks, and usually it requires breaking the rules of employment etiquette.

If you're truly good at your work, you must always consider that you're a professional first and someone's employee second. Ask yourself what counts more in a company: your business (including technical) acumen, or your willingness to do the job quietly?

Limit the etiquette.
Employment etiquette is that often-idiotic, counter-productive bunch of rules that makes a job hunter defer to the employment process rather than get down to brass tacks with the boss. If you don't put a limit on the etiquette, it'll limit you.

It's the etiquette talking when the manager says, "This is how we design a hannenframmis," and you reply, "Oh, yeah, that's how I always do it, too," whether you really do or not. And it's the etiquette that dumbs you down when the manager says, "The guy I hire has to have two years Internet experience," and you say, "Well, I guess I don't have it," and let it go at that.

You didn't become an engineer, or a marketer, or a financial analyst (or whatever it is you're good at) so you could sit back and rubber-stamp "status quo" on your company's business. You honed your skills to help a company do the job right. And if that means breaking a few rules, startling a few people, or suggesting something that's never been done before to make the interview (or the 7 a.m. departmental meeting) productive, then do it.

Telling 'em what they want to hear can sink you on the job interview, and it can sink you on the job, too. The issues are the same.

Make sure the truth is in there.
Good working relationships are destined to create, inspire and support controversy. Your job is to tell your boss the truth, come hell or high water. That's what will gain you the next level of responsibility, and it's what will set your career free.

The truth, you ask? Remember the popular TV show, The X-Files? In that drama, truth was the nebulous mass that FBI Agent Mulder grappled with every week. The reason a lot of us kept watching Fox Mulder and Dana Scully was because they were characters who risked their necks to deliver every ounce of wisdom, analytical skill and flat-out intelligent guessing that they could -- and they did it all for the truth. The most-acknowledged businesspeople (and doctors and engineers and burger-flippers) are those who stretch to put something new on the table, to create a new success.

Your career can move ahead because you "far exceeded goals", or it can take huge leaps because you "reinvented what we know about the truth". If you haven't strived to do the latter at least once, try it. Now's the time.

Why take such a chance? Because a computer can't. That's why companies still hire people.

What are we paying you for, anyway?
The truth that you're paid to deliver isn't the end of it, because the truth is nebulous and open to interpretation. That's why it's also your job to offer your professional opinion. That's what makes you valuable. Helping maintain the status quo is easy: you just sit there, nod, and do what's expected. When you put your opinion on the table and nudge the situation in a new direction, you take a position. You create the potential for change and progress. And you take a risk.

Of course, your opinions are only as meaningful as the support you can marshal for them. (Taking a risk is most rewarding when you've got your proverbial ducks in a row.) Whether you and your employer know it or not, that's what he's paying you for: your truth, your interpretation of the work, your new ideas, and your point of view. So, learn to deliver it; maybe a little more diplomatically than Agent Mulder used to, but deliver it.

Truth in interviewing opens doors.
If you're trying to psych out the job interview and tell the employer what you think he wants to hear, you become just another candidate rather than the next good hire. If you're operating under the set of employment assumptions you learned ten years ago, you might make a great yes-man (or woman), but you won't be a great contributor, and you certainly won't push your profession an inch in a new direction.

When you think too hard in an interview about "what the manager wants me to say", you're wasting his time. That's how you blow it. When you win a job because you're a good sycophant, you wind up working in a straitjacket and your career suffers in the process. This issue arises for consultants all the time. I never tell clients what they want to hear; I do my best to tell them the truth. Either they love me, or they hate me. Either we find solid common ground on which to work, or we part company. The goal of pleasing the client (or your boss) is too easily confused with the fear of losing the client (or your job). You please the boss most when you add dollars to his bottom line -- and sometimes you have to pull his hair to do it.

My advice: Never be afraid to lose a deal or a job. Go for the truth. If the guy behind the desk doesn't go for that, go somewhere else.

Truth in hiring pays off.
If you're the hiring manager, your interviews are likely sprinkled with the little untruths we all feel we have to tell in order to keep the interview interesting. But this isn't a hook you're baiting; it's a potential relationship. Lead with the truth. Your company isn't perfect; neither is your team. Here's someone sitting in your office who -- given the facts -- might be able to help you turn your project into a wild success.

So, spit the facts out. Don't ask that candidate what her greatest weaknesses are; tell her what your department's are. Lay out your project problems. Ask her to suggest ways to fix them. (Or else, why did you invite this person into your office, anyway?) Then have a working meeting to apply her ideas; to test them; to learn whether there are any useful truths your team has missed in the course of doing the job.

Why bother?
This is the time to take risks. I don't just mean "this time in your life". I mean today. Now. In the midst of incredibly low unemployment. This is the time in business history to make history. Your industry can challenge you, test you and fight you; but it can't stop you. It needs you too much. So, take risks. Make suggestions to your boss or to the guy interviewing you. Present your ideas. If they don't like your ideas, your truth, your opinions, find out why and learn from the exchange. If you must, move on to the next employer. He's waiting for you.

Pursue companies, jobs, projects and work teams that inspire your best work. This is your time to blossom, to plow and plant the business world with your most beloved harebrained ideas. (Remember what Wittgenstein said: "If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever be done.")

Sometimes you'll blow it, but sometimes you'll demonstrate that people make the business world go around, not vice versa.

If a hundred people stand up tomorrow in a hundred job interviews and departmental meetings and say, "I can take care of this, but I've got a better way to do it and I want to do it my way," a bunch of them will get fired or be denied. The rest will buy themselves (and their employers) a chance to stretch their industry and their profession as they stretch themselves. Those who succeed will earn the right to change the way the business world works just a bit. A bit times a hundred, times a thousand.

If you think the "worker shortage" is your chance to "show them" by demanding higher salaries, better benefits and better treatment in general, you're just scratching the surface of professional opportunity.

This is your time to act. It's your time to pursue and apply new ideas to your work. It's your chance to nudge the business (or technical, or non-profit) world toward a higher standard. Because long after any particular industry has changed, peaked or dried up, good workers will still be around, building new industries. Why not start taking the risks -- limited risks, in today's job market -- to re-charge and re-direct the industry you're in now?

Tell 'em what they need to hear.

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