A few generations ago, interview scripts for professional jobs followed a straightforward format. According to the logic of the times, either the candidate had the skills necessary to accept the position, or she didn’t. So to find out, interviewers would simply ask. In a 30-minute session, most questions resembled the ones below:
“Have you done this kind of work before?”
“Are you a responsible person?”
“This job will involve leadership and public speaking. Do you like those things?”
“What are your greatest strengths?”
Smart candidates quickly caught on and learned how to manipulate the system. So at this point, employers are abandoning this predictable dialogue in favor of behavior-focused and curve ball questions, which allow candidates to speak in an open-ended way about their personalities and philosophies.
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For example: “can you explain to me how you would build a bicycle?” or “how would you train a buffalo to walk backwards?” or even “how many peas could you fit inside the Empire State Building?”
If you encounter curve ball questions during your interview, recognize that your answers will provide your interviewers with volumes of useful information about who you are and how well you’ll fit in with this company. And as you field each question, keep these considerations in mind.
1. Your reaction matters.
Before you answer, your interviewers will note your reaction to the question. Do you panic, sputter, get angry, demand more information, or burst into tears? Or do you smile, relax, appreciate the challenge, and retain your sense of humor? A candidate who can keep the big picture in mind—one who stays flexible instead of rigid—will probably be a better bet than one who feels mocked, trapped, or put on the spot.
2. Speak, don’t give up.
If you’re asked how to build a bicycle, don’t assume that you have nothing to offer because you’ve never built a bicycle before. Candidates often think they’ll gain points for honesty if they just shrug and say “I don’t know.” But if you do this, you’ll miss an important opportunity. So instead of throwing up your hands, exercise your imagination, get out your mental calculator, and get to work. What do you know about bicycles? Where would you start? What experts would you call upon for help?
3. It’s just a conversation.
Don’t be afraid to get your answer wrong. Your interviewers aren’t interested in literally procuring the exact number of peas it will take to fill a building. This isn’t about peas. This is about finding the kind of employee who can live in the moment, accept a challenge, and exhibit grace under a mild amount of pressure.
4. Let your problem-solving approach speak for itself.
These employers may want the kind of worker who will take a mathematical approach (divide the height of the building by the height of each pea and calculate volume as a function of height times area) or a leadership approach (enlist the help of a team of people to gather peas, fill the building, and then start counting) or a philosophical approach (find out why this number needs to be determined and then find a more efficient way to reach the same goal). Your answer will help them make this assessment. Just complete your part of the scenario and allow them to complete theirs using any method they choose.
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