What Are Your Favorite Job Interview Questions?

When interviewing for jobs, I recommend coming up with two sets of questions. The first set are all the questions you ask because you want the facts: salary, benefits, amount of travel, number of people you'll be supervising, the size of the budget, and so on. The second set are more subtle, because the answers contain information that lies beneath the surface of the answers you get. These are questions that give you information about the culture of the organization beyond the canned responses of "our values as stated in our strategic plan are . . ." or "we encourage all of our employees to . . . " . Here's an example from my own career: 

When I interviewed for the position of Scientific Director at a women's health research advocacy organization, I talked (separately) to three people: the Executive Director (CEO), the Deputy Director (COO), and a member of the Board of Directors. I asked each of them, "Is this a feminist organization?" and I got three very different responses. 

CEO:  "No, absolutely not, we can't call ourselves that and be effective in the work we do on the Hill and at the agencies."

COO: "What do you mean by 'feminist'?" (This led to a great conversation about how feminism influenced my management style, how I regarded and treated staff, etc.)

Board member: "Absolutely it is. I wouldn't be involved if it weren't." 

All of these were the "right" answers.  The CEO's focus was on growing the organization's reputation as a thought leader and its influence among lawmakers and policy makers, in order to achieve the organization's goals. The COO's focus was on how well I would fit into the organization's culture and style of management. The Board member had the big picture in mind - how does this organization fit in the wider world of policy and politics? 

What is your favorite question to ask when you interview for a job?






The Medium and the Message

Effective communication requires that you first clarify for yourself what exactly it is that you want to communicate. Are you offering factual information that is relatively emotion-neutral? Are you delivering information that you can anticipate will bring up an emotional response? Do you want to express and get over your own emotional response to something? 

Clear communication also requires that you choose the right medium for conveying your message. Face-to-face is always ideal, because it allows for immediate response and feedback. You’ll know pretty quickly if the message you sent was the message that was received. Face-to-face conversation is the only effective option when the message you need to convey has a significant emotional content. Remember, we communicate on many levels other than verbal speaking-and-listening, and when our emotions are triggered, our brain is attentive to all kinds of signals, down to pupil dilation and how we smell.

When a face-to-face conversation isn’t possible, a telephone call can be an adequate, though not ideal, solution. Although you lose the context of facial expression and body language, talking by phone preserves the information conveyed by volume, pitch, and tone of your voice and by the pacing of your speech.

Great novelists are expert at conveying emotional content through the written word. For the rest of us, written communication is suitable only for providing factual information, free of emotional content. This includes emails, tweets, Facebook or LinkedIn posts – any medium in which your message will be read by someone at a distance. This is particularly true for communication in business or at work. In a work situation, one useful practice is to write out (NOT in your email program where you might hit “send” too soon) everything you want you want to say, including opinions, assessments, judgments, emotion, insults, “digs,” and so on. Then go back and delete anything that is not a statement of fact. Opinions, assessments, and judgments are statements of fact when they are prefaced with “I think . . .” or “My opinion on this is . . . “ Even so, keep the insults, digs, and emotions out of it. “Joe, I think that the analysis you’ve provided in this report incomplete. What I want is an analysis that addresses the following . . .” is ok. “Joe, what the heck am I supposed to do with this lame report you provided?” may feel satisfying in the moment, but is that really going to get you what you want?


Getting Honest About Emotions


You can find loads of books and articles about how to “handle” emotions in the workplace. Most of them are pretty useless, because they are based on the unquestioned premise that to succeed, and to lead, we are required to pretend we don’t have emotions at work.

I have long known this to be a bad way to deal with emotions in the work place. And now I have some science to back me up.

If I ever get back to Finland, I’m going to look up Lauri Nummenmaa just to shake her hand and thank her for doing the work she does. Dr. Nummenmaa is a neuroscientist who does research at Aalto University, and she and her collaborators use brain imaging tools to figure out what happens when we experience emotion. 

Two of her recent papers speak directly to this issue of emotions and the futility of pretending we don’t have them. In case you want to check them out yourself, here are the titles and URLs: 

“Bodily maps of emotions”


“Emotions promote social interaction by synchronizing brain activity across individuals.”


Dr. Nummenmaa and her research colleagues figured out a way to measure something that many who work in behavior and psychology have know for a long time: that what we call “emotions” are sets or packages of bodily sensations that we have learned to label anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and so on.

You can‘t make yourself not have emotions, they just show up, like the tide. And, like the tide, the ebb and flow, wax and wane. And although we think we can hide our emotions from those around us, we give ourselves away in myriad ways, from small changes in our facial expression or tone of voice, to changes in the way we smell.

Dr. Nummenmaa also found that when people sharing an emotional state, their brain activity synchronizes in a way that enhances our ability to predict and understand each other’s actions. By attempting to suppress our emotions in the workplace out of some belief that having emotions at work is “inappropriate,” we are cutting ourselves off from one of the ways our brains make it easier for us to get along and work together.

Since you can’t avoid having emotions, ask yourself, what are you doing with them? Are you storing them up? Building a case out of them? Making yourself sick pretending you don‘t have them? Or are you feeling them, letting them move through you, and speaking your mind when necessary, to get over yourself?

I used to brag that I had a strong temper but a long fuse. What was really going on is that I would suppress anger so quickly I wasn’t even aware of it until much later when it emerged rather explosively – or it oozed out indirectly, as gossip, or nagging, or wanting to avoid someone. I eventually learned that the most frequent sensation I feel when I get angry is tightness in my chest and stomach. I’ve learned that when I notice that sensation, I need to check in to find out what I’m making myself angry about, and then deal with it in a way that I get over being angry, rather than just squelching it.

The challenge is that we are all taught, from the time we are small children, to suppress the emotions our cultures regard as “negative” – particularly anger and its derivatives such as frustration, fear, and sadness or its milder cousin, disappointment. We also learn to keep a lid on our joy, in part because the physical sensations that accompany anger (which we learn to suppress and become uncomfortable around) are similar to those that we feel when we are joyful.

Of course as little, immature human beings we do have a lot to learn how to coexist with other little (and big) human beings. We had to learn how to live with our emotions without causing harm to others or ourselves. 

Now, as healthy adults, we are capable of fully experiencing and expressing our emotions without causing damage, physical or otherwise, to ourselves and others. To do that, we have to unlearn what we learned as kids.

We have to be willing to fully experience our emotions, acknowledge and take responsibility for them as self-generated, and express our emotions in ways that lets them move up and out, rather than hanging on to them.

To tell the truth about emotions, to fully express them, we have to start by noticing we have them. We have to be willing to own them as ours, and to express them in the moment, in ways that are congruent with the power of the emotion in the moment.

With practice, you can get so good at this that, most of the time, you’ll be able to notice, express, and get over emotions when they are still small, before they pile up and build up to explosive levels. Not just anger, sadness, and fear but also happiness, joy, and appreciation.

I got a lot of help in learning how to do this from Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty and Practicing Radical Honesty and from my amazing life coach and co-author of The Book of How, Raven Dana. Read those books. Do the practices.

Learn how to express your emotions, at work and everywhere else you go. That’s how to manage emotions.


Ten Ways to Create a Humane - Not a "Nice" - Workplace.

I cringe every time I see or hear the words "nice" or "civil" or even "appropriate" used to describe desirable workplace behavior. I would so much rather work with and around people who are kind, generous, clear and direct in their communication. A humane workplace isn't a place without upset, where everyone skips through fields of daisies holding hands and singing the team song. A humane workplace makes room for authentic human beings, committed to a common vision and mission, doing their best to get the results they desire.

A humane workplace starts with clear, direct communication. Here are ten ways to contribute to the humanity of your workplace.  

1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t say “yes” when you mean “no,” for example.

2. Don’t confuse your opinions, judgments and assessments with the truth, or with any kind of objective reality.

3. Don’t attempt to read minds. When in doubt, ask directly.

4. State all commitments and agreements clearly and explicitly. Be explicit and clear about what will happen if agreements are not kept.

5. Keep your commitments, and agreements without complaint. If you have to renege on something you’ve agreed to, accept the consequences without complaint.

6. State your expectations, clearly and explicitly. This includes your expectations about how others will behave or treat you. Know that some of your expectations will not be met. Be ready to handle disappointment.

7. Trust that the others you work with will do what they agree to do. If they fail to do what they agree to do, see Rule #8.

8. Take your disappointments, complaints, grievances, and disputes directly to the person with whom you have a complaint, a grievance, or a dispute. Do not involve a third party

9. If someone brings you a complaint, grievance, or dispute with someone else, refuse to have the conversation with them and ask them to take it to the person with whom they have complaint, a grievance, or a dispute. Do not be the third party.

10. Keep your personal life and your professional life separate and distinct. Even if you are friends with coworkers outside of the workplace, keep your personal life out of your working relationship.

That's a start. Now go do it!

Don't Just Lean In - Speak Up!

In deliberative groups (i.e. committees, Boards, seminars, etc.), women speak up less frequently than men. Here's a link to one recent research report - there are data on this going back at least 20 years:

Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation

This study found that in such groups, men take up about 75% of the time spent talking. Yes, that's men talking three times as much as women, even when women are 50% or more of the group. 

As a facilitator, I've been aware of this research for many years and it influences my facilitation work. In addition to ensuring that women have the chance to speak, I encourage groups in which women are a minority to, as much as possible, reach unanimity or at least consensus on any decisions. I am pleased that the authors of this report confirm my approach. They state, "We find a substantial gender gap in voice and authority, but as hypothesized, it disappears under unanimous rule and few women, or under majority rule and many women. Deliberative design can avoid inequality by fitting institutional procedure to the social context of the situation."

What are your thoughts on this? What have been your experiences as a member of a deliberative group? As a chair or facilitator of such a group?