Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wouldn't It Be Great to Be Able to Look Under Your Prospective Boss's Hood?

Okay, so I have a quick question for you. Are you a nut? If I gave you this cup right here, would you be able to confidently take it into the bathroom, knowing that the results wouldn’t hurt your chances of a job? How do you blow off steam when you’re tense? If you found a wallet on the sidewalk, what would you do with it? If I called one of those background checkers on you right now, what would they find on you? Do you have multiple cats and have a tendency to leave newspapers all over the floor and dishes in the sink? (No, wait, that’s me.) Are you the kind of person who promises only one question but really asks, let’s see, one, two, three, four, five, six questions?

Prospective employers want to know these things about you (except, probably, not so much the thing about the cats; they would probably prefer not to know about the cats). And they have ways of finding these things out: experts in background checks, personality tests, aptitude tests, the cup in the bathroom deal. They can really peer under your hood and find out all sorts of things about you, maybe even stuff that you didn’t know yourself. Surprise!

It sure would be nice to have the same advantages when you are considering prospective bosses, wouldn’t it? While you can’t exactly hand them a cup, nor get their social security number for your own rap sheet research, or ask them to fill out this quick personality screening test, it seems like it would only be fair play. I mean, you have every reason to need to predict whether these people will go all nut-bag on you, just as much as they need to know about you. You’d think that they had already passed those emotional-health gates by now. After all, they were once candidates for the jobs they have. But there sure are a lot of wackoids (that’s a clinical term) out there who are in charge of other peoples’ careers and peace of mind.

We’ve all heard of bully bosses, for example. And I’d venture a guess that most of us have personal experience with at least one or two people who were just flat-out not very nice. To put it mildly. As it turns out, it may not be that these people are mean to the bone. It could be that certain parts of their brains are over-active. And it sure would be nice to know which parts are on overdrive before we accept the job offer, wouldn’t it?

Over this past weekend I found myself lost in a fantastic book by Daniel Amen, MD, called Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. (On Saturday morning I promised myself just one chapter, but before I knew it the weekend was gone at precisely the moment I turned the last page of the book. I’m a slow reader, plus I underlined a lot.)

A blog posting is not the place to go into total details about the book. But let’s just say that he has a scientific process, much like an MRI, that can read what components of a person’s brain are bouncing off the proverbial wall (another clinical term). And this way he’s able to show why the person is behaving so badly. Negative thinking, procrastination, emotional control, rage, violence, ability to control anxiety, ability to organize, capacity for empathy, tendency to worry, tendency to hold grudges, etc., (perhaps even the proclivity to write long sentences) are all seated in certain parts of the brain: the deep limbic system; the basal ganglia; the prefrontal cortex; the cingulate system; and the temporal lobes.

All very interesting. But the thought that kept occurring to me (in what part of my brain I wonder) was this: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just inject our interviewers with isotope, make them lie down on a drawer, and slide them under one of those thingamabobs to find out exactly what’s going on with their noodle? As Eliza Doolittle says in My Fair Lady: “Wouldn’t it be loverly?”

Since you can’t, you really have to play super-detective when you go into interviews. And you have to have the nerve to see things for exactly how they are and make the decision whether you actually would want to work there. Here are some ideas:

Take a look around the department and the office: It seems that nowadays offices all look alike. Modular, cubicle. That’s okay for some, but that would just suck the life out of me. (I mean, what’s a workspace without newspapers all over the floor? I ask you.) But that’s just me. What you want to be looking for is an indication of whether you would be comfortable there. If everything looks so tidy that it appears that the staff is under direct orders to hide all the evidence, someone might be a little controlling at the top. Or if things look so sterile that a phone swab wouldn’t register a single microbe, could you possibly have a latter-day Howard Hughes on your hands? Maybe, maybe not. Just take notes.

Or does the office look like a teenager works there? Gum wrappers strewn everywhere? Candy spilling out of the drawers? Bent, empty soft drink cans standing forgotten on any available surface? Posters of some gawd-awful rock band on the walls? Files on the floor? Any kind of evidence of hyper energy and perhaps attention deficit disorder? Does the staff look crazed and on edge? Welcome to your future. You might want to google “twinkie defense,” before saying yes to the job offer.

Conduct a little behavioral-interviewing of your own: Personally, I think there’s nothing worse than being on the hotseat and having an interviewer ask me a question that starts with “Tell me about a time when….” I even draw a blank when someone asks me, “Do you have any questions for us?” My eyes roll back and all I can squeak out is “hummuna hummuna hummana.” Not very professional, is it? And I talk to people for a living. So if your interviewer is asking you to tell stories, ask a few back – most especially if the interviewer is your prospective boss.

The questions I really like are: “How do you like to work under pressure? Can you tell me of a time when you and your team pulled together under a really hard deadline? How did you rally the troops? What was the secret to your team success? How did you celebrate afterwards?” (Notice the positive orientation here?)

Another one: “What signs do you look for in a new employee’s performance that tell you that this is a successful hire?” Here you look like you’re gathering data on what the boss considers to be successful work habits. But what you’re actually getting is a solid idea as to whether the boss is a positive-thinker who has tons of stories of how much he or she appreciates the staff. Positive thinkers always have great anecdotes at their fingertips about how wonderful their people are. Word to wise: If you hear, “our people are our most valuable assets,” make a note of that and circle it in red. Danger! Danger!

Ask your prospective boss about the person who previously had the job. Why is it now vacated? Hopefully because the person was promoted from within or has gone on to a stellar career elsewhere. How long did the person have the job? What did he or she like best about it? What was it about that person that the boss especially appreciated? Listen for how the boss talks about your predecessor. Is he or she happy for that person’s ongoing success? Or resentful that that person has moved on? I actually heard one boss call a departed employee a bad word that is brought to you by the letters A and H. Hmmm. An unresolved issue there, I’d say.

Is the prospective boss polite to you? If you’re a candidate, you’re in the category of “guest,” not “slave begging for work.” So you should be treated like a guest. The interview should be on time. And if out-of-control circumstances make the boss late, someone should let you know. If the tardiness is more than a half hour, you should be given the opportunity to reschedule if you want to.

You may be actually be the one who was there first, with a new boss coming in to take over the department. How does that person treat the new staff? With humility and receptivity as befits a newbie? Or someone who is over-compensating for his or her discomfort? What language does that person use?

I was at a client’s office once when a new department head passed by me at the soft drink machine. While I had worked for the client for many years, both as a staffer and then as a consultant, this guy was totally new. When he saw me, he said, “Skulking around here, trying to scrounge up work?” Huh. That was weird. But everyone is a little weird when they start a new job. So I gave it a pass.

But then he hired a new direct report, who said to me, “If you intend to keep working for us, just know that I’m going to hold your feet to the fire.” Alrighty then. Given the choice (not to mention self-respect), I regretfully scratched that client off my list. That was that. The end of a great run.

I recognize that in these tough times, it’s hard to be too choosy when it comes to landing a great job with a mentally healthy boss. I mean, everyone is just a little bit nuts. But go into these interviews with your eyes, ears and intuition on full receptivity mode. The realities of food-in-mouth, roof-over-head may force you to accept the job as it’s offered to you.

But you will know that, with that peek under your boss’s hood, you should probably keep your resume current and in circulation. You’ll also know not to take any weirdness personally. It’s just them and that hot spot firing off in their brain.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article!!! You're hilarious! I wish I was able to read three years ago...I not only had one mentally-ill boss but TWO! BOGO type of thing there, huh?! I will put this into my 'favorites' list so that I can be fully prepared on my interviews!

    Looking & Searching with all eyes and ears