No one aims to come across as inauthentic in a job interview and yet so many candidates do. They struggle to talk naturally about their strengths and avoid talking about their weaknesses, they force laughs and deliver canned responses. As someone who’s conducted thousands of interviews, I can tell you that inauthenticity is like an unpleasant odor: it’s easily noticeable and makes you want to leave the room quickly.
At the heart of the matter is a fundamental misunderstanding of what authenticity entails. “Being authentic” isn’t a euphemism for “being yourself.” In other words, authenticity doesn’t equate to:
- Presenting each and every detail about yourself
- Dressing for an interview in the same clothes you wear at home
- Making jokes you’d make with friends
- Being informal
Ingredient #1: Practice
It sounds counter-intuitive but communicating with authenticity takes practice. The most public speakers or stand-up comedians have put in thousands of hours of practice. They make it look effortless, they seem like “naturals,” because they’ve put in the work to refine their words and make sure they come through cleanly and clearly.
In job interviews, you know you’re going to be asked about your weaknesses. What are you going to say? Are you going to answer the question, or instead deliver a response you’ve memorized? Have you ever received feedback from anyone on the quality of your answer?
And what about times if you aren’t sure what the “right” thing to say is—like when you’re asked for your opinion on a complex issue?
With practice, you’ll have a better chance of remembering there’s no such thing as a perfect answer, but there is a concise, honest one. I’ve found that usually the longer someone takes to answer questions in an interview, the less time they’ve spent preparing for them.
Ingredient #2: Balance
But effort alone won’t get you there, because authenticity also requires a sense of balance. Whether we’re working to lower our golf score or lift our happiness, the research is pretty clear: There’s a point at which extra effort actually hurts our performance. It’s called trying too hard.
In job interviews, “trying too hard” takes many forms:
- You want to come across as intelligent, so you deliver a monologue about what you know and have done
- You want to demonstrate your value, so you brag about your experience and accomplishments and avoid talking about any setbacks or shortcomings
- You want to communicate that you’re familiar with the job description, so you list all the job requirements and draw a comparison to the skills on your CV
- You’re intent on showing how well you’d fit culturally, so you say what you think the company wants to hear, not what you believe
There’s no comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts to arrive at an ideal balance between humility and confidence, between honesty and over-sharing, between formality and rigidity. Circumstance and context matter immensely. We get better at recognizing and responding to them with practice.
Ingredient #3: Sense of self-worth
The third—and arguably most important ingredient—is a sense of self-worth. There’s plenty of cookie-cutter advice out there that leaves you acting and sounding like everyone else, which promotes molding yourself into the kind of person you think a company wants to hire. But it is precisely because insincerity and uniformity are so rampant in business conversations today that the value of authenticity has never been higher. Candor and authenticity get noticed because they’re so rare.
But unlocking that value takes work. Lots of it. As the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”