Although we are the first-person narrators of our own lives, we are unreliable and often get our stories wrong.
For example, I met one of my very dear HR friends for the first time on the streets of New Orleans in 2009. When I was introduced to this woman, she was drunk and slurred her words. Behind her back, people were openly talking about her life choices — including her choice in relationships. It was cringeworthy.
So I pulled her aside and said, “I know you don’t know me, but people are talking about you. Uh, right now. They’re saying stuff. And your life is no one else’s business. You might want to keep things private. And you should probably head back to your room. I’m sorry. Fuck them, but really, it’s time to head out of here.”
Boom. Just like that.
Or was it like that? This woman — drunk or not — does not remember the specifics of that encounter. She only remembers thinking, “God, Laurie is tiny.”
That’s how she tells the story.
“I met Laurie on the streets of New Orleans. She made no impression on me except that she was really short.”
Then we officially met again the next day at our conference.
This encounter reminds me that reality isn’t a fact. While I am the first-person narrator of my life and I am pretty confident about my perspective, I am hardly a reliable narrator. In fact, I always appear more level-headed and calm in my stories than I am in real life. I know this. And I know that your story as a human being — and as a job seeker — is also unreliable. You see things a certain way; however, just like everyone else, you are flawed and you bring ego to the table.
So I bristle at behavior-based interviewing. When someone gives me an example of a time they were courageous at work and took an unpopular stance, I know it’s a mere snippet of what really happened. And while past behavior probably gives us some insight into future performance, many of us don’t understand our past behaviors well enough to represent them correctly.
Self-actualization and true self-awareness are lovely goals — but they are also myths. Just when you think you’ve reached a point of enlightenment, you are doomed. Just like Sisyphus, that rock rolls back down the hill and life demands you start over again.
My advice for HR professionals:
- Consider alternatives to behavior-based interviewing. Good storytellers have a certain competency that makes their narratives compelling. Doesn’t mean they can fit into your organization or help your company achieve its goals. And don’t assume that you can discern truth from fiction.
My advice for job seekers:
- Practice your narrative and make sure it’s true. Did you really save the company $50MM in one fell swoop? Did you really make an unpopular but heroic decision that separated you from the pack of animals in your office? Are you really as generous — and do you really love and forgive people as unconditionally — as you think you do?
As a job seeker and a regular person, my favorite answer to an open-ended question is simple. I say, “I don’t answer open-ended questions. Obviously I’m about to tell you stories where I am interesting and amazing. Is there something specific you want to know? Go ahead and ask that.”
That response has never let me down.
You can get away with it, too.