“Be yourself” in interviews

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“Oh, just be yourself.”

It’s normal to question this advice when it comes to a job interview. What does it mean exactly?

This advice isn’t incorrect, but it isn’t particularly useful without context. I would like to share my thoughts and help clarify what it means.

Interview expectations

I spent the last 10 years interviewing people at all levels and from all walks of life. I can tell you with certainty that there are rules to interviewing and breaking the rules can cast the candidate in an unfavourable light.

What should remain top of mind when going to an interview is that this is a professional context therefore the expectation is that the behaviour will follow suit. Key expectations like being on time, wearing the appropriate attire and answering the questions are examples of non-negotiables that must be met. An attempt to inject “personality”, such as repeatedly answering a question with another question for example, will most probably lead to undesirable results. When you want a specific outcome, you have to modify your behaviour towards actions that will favour this outcome.

How do I show who I am?

So with these strict rules, how do you “be yourself”?

Without being overly philosophical, you already are who you are; it isn’t something you have to “be”. Let’s take the example of someone who enjoys reading and is linguistically inclined. Generally, this trait comes through in an interview based on the words they choose when responding, the breadth of the person’s vocabulary and the use of measured or nuanced terms. They are not “trying” to be this way; they simply are without necessarily being aware of it.

You can consciously use your responses to offer insights into who you are, however. Let’s take the example of someone who considers themselves to be rebellious. The counterproductive way to demonstrate rebellion would be to bend or break the interview expectations. A more effective way would be to respond by sharing a concrete example from a work context where this rebellious trait came into play and benefited you, your team, your boss or your company.

What interviewers want

The goal of an interview is to assess the candidate’s fit with the position, with the manager and the team and with the overall company culture. The interviewers also want to gain understanding of who the person is. Interview situations are abnormal and can be stressful. Many interviewers, myself included, say “be yourself” in an attempt to help the candidate feel relaxed and to not feel judged about every detail.

Candidates who are overly guarded work against themselves because they raise a red flag around authenticity. The last thing anyone wants out of a new hire is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation where the person they met in the interview is not the employee they ended up hiring. Candidates who cannot overcome their nerves also raise a red flag because every workplace has its share of stress. While the candidate may be capable of handling stress, this is not how they come across when they are unable to put their nerves aside for the duration of the interview.

By saying “be yourself” to candidates, interviewers are attempting to help the candidate see the interview as non-threatening. Believe it or not, they want the interview to go well. When an interview goes well, they are one step closer to filling their vacancy returning to a normal level of productivity.

What you can do

The best things to do for an interview is to focus on preparation. I wrote an article a few weeks ago on this subject which you can find here. Being well prepared will help you to feel more confident in the interview and in turn help you to present your best self.

There isn’t a “one size fits all” personality that guarantees success in an interview. Trust that your professional self is enough and that the total package of your experience, your goals and your personality has sufficient merit for you to be a viable candidate.

Oprah Winfrey often shares the anecdote that at the beginning of her career, she was trying to be like Barbara Walters. She realized that she could never “beat” Barbara Walters at being Barbara Walters, so she decided to be herself and it paid off.

Prepare, stay professional and do your best in your next interview.

Good luck!