Stress interviews: the dreaded "tell me about yourself"

by Chris Tang in Blog

DatePosted on December 07, 2015 at 04:00 PM
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Some of the commentary you see online argues that the, “tell me about yourself,” query is a lazy form of questioning that inexperienced interviewers will raise.  That may somewhat feel a little comforting to you as the interviewee but ultimately it doesn’t get to the next step, namely, answering the question.  In some ways, it can indicate a lazy and careless question.  But it should always be seen in its context. Whatever the reasoning behind the opening line, you still need to know how to deal with it.  

Let’s say you're at the interview and your interviewer is shuffling lots of paperwork in front of you, looking anxious, struggling to find your CV amongst a stack of other CVs and resumés, and uses it to fill in the time whilst she or he gets to read your CV or resumé.  Then yes, it probably is down to the interviewer’s lack of preparation for the meeting.  If that is the case, it should raise some warning signs to you, as an interviewee, of the interviewer’s own managerial or time management style.  

However, if the interviewer is dressed in a sharp suit, is well groomed, looks intently at you and fires the question at you before you have even had the chance to sit down, it could be part of what’s known as a 'stress interview'.  In other words, it could be part of the interview tactic to see how well you would cope in a stressful scenario. The reason being that if you can cope under a stressful situation at a job interview, you can cope with a stressful situation at work. But could your reaction be similar to that of Chunk, from the 1980s Steven Spielberg classic movie, The Goonies (Amblin Entertainment)?  

See below. I sincerely hope that none of our readers experiences this in real life!   

  Excerpt from The Goonies movie (1985, Amblin Entertainment) on YouTube.

I’ve never understood, or at least particularly agree with, the rationale of a stress interview.  Coping under a stressful situation at work is completely different from a stressful situation at a job interview.  Having worked in legal practice for over 10 years, I have never felt the same type of stress at round table meetings or completion meetings as I did with some job interviews I attended as a junior lawyer. Working around a table surrounded by your client, the other party, their lawyers and corporate M&A lead advisors, I was totally focused on getting the job done to the satisfaction of all parties, and always thinking 3 steps ahead of what was needed to be done.

With a job interview, whether it's because you know something personal is at stake (your job or career), or being in an artificially created environment, inevitably, you will act and react differently from a work scenario. I feel for candidates who feel they can describe other people better than they can describe themselves, because in many respects it is true. 

Indeed, I have never come across one lawyer who spends as much time and attention to detail on their own personal finance and affairs as they do on a client matter, so inevitably they are more likely to be 'sharp' on client business but 'attention poor' on their own personal affairs. There is something inherent among all professionals (not just lawyers) that as soon as you tend to a client’s affairs, you are wearing an ‘advisor’ hat, not a ‘me’ hat.  Your entire perception, confidence and demeanour are different.  

When you’re in a stressful situation with a client at work, you’re ‘in the zone’.  You are much better prepared and have the requisite tools to deal with stressful situations because you have done it time and time again (in some form or other).  

"Coping under a stressful situation at work is completely different from a stressful situation at a job interview."

For example, getting a draft document out to the other side, regardless of whether it's non contentious or contentious legal work. The deadline, content, volume or format might be different, but as a seasoned lawyer or other professional, you're used to adapting to the requirements at the time. Essentially, the objective (of getting a draft document out) remains the same, it's just the finer details that might be different. Job interviews, on the other hand, appear once every few years, so it's no wonder that you will feel rusty and less well equipped to deal with off-the-cuff questions when attending an interview (particularly a stress interview).  

Personally, I see job interviews as a means of assessing the interviewee’s ambition and enthusiasm (I’d even go as far to say, passion), as well as to gauge how well their social character and personality would fit into and enhance the team’s dynamic. Interviewers can assess someone's competence at a job through other means. But that would stray into a different topic. 

"I have never felt the same type of stress at round table meetings or completion meetings as I did with some job interviews I attended as a junior lawyer." 

So, getting back to the subject matter, how do you deal with this line of questioning?  Whether it’s owing to a disorganised interviewer or a supremely eagle eyed, intent-on-making-you-shrivel-meat-grinding-interviewer, note that this question is so wide, you could end up telling your entire life story. Or, like Chunk from the movie, The Goonies, confessing to some weird sh*t! 

The ‘tell me about yourself’ gambit is so wide as to be rendered meaningless by whatever answer you give, and the way in which the question is asked could either be an indication of a stress interview or simply a buying time tactic for the interviewer to read into your CV.  Whichever the approach of the interviewer, you must immediately respond (in a polite way) by asking the interviewer to narrow down or clarify the question. So for example, ‘I have a lot of things I can talk about in my career, but is there something in particular that you would like to learn more about or for me to focus on?’.   Otherwise, you will end up telling the interviewer your life story or worst, turn it into a confession, Chunk-style! 


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About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here:

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