The world record for the longest boomerang flight is just over three minutes. That’s about the same length of time it takes for an interview panel to form an opinion of you.
One easy way for interviewers to toss you aside is if they pick up on any negativity you put out toward your previous co-workers or workplace. Speaking negatively about another person, extolling your own virtues at the expense of others, or poking fun at those not in the room can create a “boomerang effect.” This occurs when the audience begins to mentally come to the defense of the person being attacked. Instead of persuading the audience to your point of view, you’ve unintentionally hardened their stance against you. This is “anti-persuasion.”
Once the audience turns on you as a speaker, there’s almost nothing you can say that can reverse the trend. You are headed the wrong way on a one-way road.
Let’s consider how this advice could translate to seeking a job in higher ed. In the application process, job seekers have several venues to make an impression for good or for ill. Here are a few examples:
Devondra is interviewing for a position as a public affairs specialist at a university. She is asked about a difficult challenge she had to overcome in the workplace. She immediately thinks of her former boss and his decision-making style. “My boss was an idiot; he would never commit to the same decision for very long. This made it a very challenging time,” she says, “but I overcame it.”
Lucas is writing an application for a faculty position in music. He comments on his performance on his student evaluations and compares them to his colleagues. “Compared to my colleagues, I always had the highest reviews,” he states. “Students were lining up to take my class, which wasn’t always the case around the department.”
Miguel is giving a “job talk.” He chooses the topic of communication in the workplace and uses an example of leading a student field study trip when two members of his team miscommunicated over an issue. He shows an example of one of their text messages on the screen as a light-hearted depiction of when communication goes wrong.
In each case, the audience picks up on the subtle negative messaging of the candidate and takes sides with the person not present. One panel member who is a supervisor herself sympathizes with the “idiot” boss. A faculty interviewer who once had a show-off colleague sides with Lucas’s fellow department members. And the administrative specialist who knows the stress of coordinating field study trips silently feels sorry for Miguel’s colleague behind the text messages. Without knowing it, each candidate has isolated themselves.
Dave Anderson, a hiring expert writing about interview mistakes, explains that interviewers don’t see your last workplace the same way you do. “The person interviewing you doesn’t know your current and past co-workers. When you say ‘my boss,’ they picture your future boss at their company. When you say ‘my peer,’ they’re picturing the nice woman on your future team. It’s human nature to imagine the familiar.”
What’s a better way? Send out genuinely positive signals about your past associates and watch your audience warm to you. Compliment your co-workers. Show understanding to your boss. Give credit to your staff and assistants. These signals will reflect well on you as a candidate.
There may be a need to talk openly about a difficult situation at your former workplace. The best way to approach this is to be as specific as possible, showing that circumstances were unique to that time and place. Give enough detail about the scenario to show you understand the differences and that you are not prone to be negative in general. Own your part in the situation and discuss what you’ve learned. Most of all, don’t throw anyone under the bus. Then come back to why this new workplace offers what you are looking for and how you are prepared to contribute to its success.
Overall, it is far better to keep your focus on this job and this organization rather than your last job and organization. Employers will see your sincere enthusiasm for the mission, knowledge of the work, and potential contributions. Show respect for those in and outside of the room and watch the benefits roll back to you, like a boomerang.
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