Delving into the Mind of the Interviewer: What Are They Asking You?

Has an interviewer ever asked you a question that completely threw you off your game? 

Don’t worry; it happens to the best of us.  No matter how well we prepare -- we cannot anticipate every question. 

And to make it harder… weird interview questions are becoming fashionable! 

I’ve heard that Google and Facebook like to ask what kind of superpowers you’d like, others may ask your favorite color, or what kind of tree would you be?

As if interviews weren’t hard enough!

As part of my role at the Leadership Institute, I help conservatives prepare for interviews.  In the context of this, I ask standard competency and some strange interview questions with two goals: determining how they answer and whether they can decipher why I have asked the question.

One of my favorites is: “If I gave you a million dollars, how would you spend it?” 

If I had a million dollars, between you and me, I’d hire Gordon Ramsay to come to my house and give me private cooking lessons! 

Joking aside, I want to use this blog to help you read the interviewer’s mind.  By this I don’t mean telepathy -- I mean delving into the motive behind the questions to understand what the interviewer is truly asking you. 

Introductory Questions:

These are questions you should have rehearsed answers to.  The key is to know what quality the interviewer is asking you to show them.

For example:  What is your greatest weakness?  Nobody is perfect, so clearly you have a weakness, mine is written communication and an excessive coffee addiction!  What the employer is looking for is recognition of where you have to improve and also what action you are taking.  Admitting a weakness isn’t a bad thing.  Just remember what the employer is looking for.  On this occasion, they’re interested to see whether you practice self-improvement.

Other introductory questions may include:  describe your work style, or your motivations.  How do you measure success? Etc.

Questions About the Organization:

This is where your prior research is essential.  It is unlikely that the interviewer will try to trip you up here.  You’re not expected to know how many members they had in 1982; it’s not trivia!  But there is no excuse for failing to do basic preparation.  You should be aware of the mission, the core breakdown of the organization, recent news stories, and the management. 

What does the interviewer want from you?  Evidence that you care about the organization, that you applied to them for a reason, and that you are committed to their goals.

For example: Why do you want to work for this organization over others?  This is a multilayered question, but the basic premise here is to find out whether you’re passionate about them.  Do you know about their work?  And perhaps any further involvement they have in their community or charities?  Are you aware of their competitors and challenges they’re facing?

Basic research preparation is key.  Other questions may include: what’s your favorite thing about working in this industry?  What challenges are you looking for in this position? Etc.

Situational Questions:

I’ll be honest here… these questions are hard.  Sometimes they can be unpredictable, and the answers you prepared can suddenly become irrelevant.  I was once asked to describe an occasion when I had come up with a creative solution to a problem. 

I could demonstrate my problem-solving skills, but what qualified as a ‘creative solution?’  The key here is to stop, think, and offer an example of how you demonstrated that skill, what you did well, what you would do differently, and what the result was.

When asked to describe an example, don’t be afraid to say:  “that’s a good question, may I take a moment to think about it?”  It is better to take the time to think than to rush into an answer.

An example of this is:  When have you taken the initiative and what was the result?  Stop to think about the job; what skills are they looking for?  Then think about the best example and answer the question including what you did, how people reacted, what you achieved, and what you would do differently.

Other examples may include: Tell me about a time you led a team; or tell me about a time you disagreed with a manager.

Weird and Wonderful Questions:

These are very unpredictable, and as such, there is not much you can do to prepare for them.  Just remember to show your personality, don’t be afraid to tell a light hearted joke or demonstrate your ability to work well with others.

An example may include:  What do you like to do in your free time?  On a question like this, you’re being asked whether you have any passions or interests beyond work that make you attractive.  Remember many organizations have clubs.  If people are going to work with you day-in-day-out, they have to have reassurance that you’re interesting!  So talk about sports or talk about your friends.

Other questions may include:  If you could have one wish?  If you could have a super power?.

Management Questions:

These questions aren’t just for people looking for management jobs.  They are an assessment of what you look for in a leader and, therefore, your ability to work with your supervisor.  They can also be an evaluation of whether you have the potential to be a leader, remember organizations like to hire people who have long-term potential, especially if they’re committing time and money to training you.

Think about what a real leader demonstrates: delegation, strong communication, and an ability to encourage and motivate, then reflect on how you have shown these qualities and on examples of when your previous managers have shown them.

For example, did you like your last supervisor?  Unless the circumstances were truly exceptional you should always say yes; remember the D.C. community is a small world and word travels fast.  Say what you liked about their leadership style, what you learned from them, and what you wanted more from them.  Remember they are looking to see whether you will work well under their direction; you want to come across as somebody who can take instruction but also add to the team.

Conclusive Questions:

This is the most common mistake in any interview, yet it’s so simple!

There is only one conclusive question, and that is: Do you have any questions for me? 

Yes, you do!!

This question is an interview question!  And yet so many people don’t answer.  The interviewer wants to know if you’ve thought about the job, the company, and whether you’re curious to know more.  If you don’t ask questions -- you don’t care.

Have five pre-set interview questions on hand with the expectation that a couple of them will be answered in the course of the interview.  Then you should aim to ask two or three of them.  They should be about the organization and its ethos, management, people, etc.  Here are five questions I recommend:

  • What are the biggest problems facing this department, and how do we solve them?
  • Who are the people I will be working closest with, their names, and job titles?
  • How do you measure success? 
  • Ask about activities outside the workplace e.g.  social life, charity work.
  • Do you have any further doubts about my ability to do this job that you would like me to address? (My personal favorite.  Either the recruiter admits you’re perfect for the job or you get the opportunity to address any underlying concerns still prevailing.)

Finally, if you would like a list of questions you should consider please look at the Leadership Institute’s Jobseeker Guide.  We are here to assist you with your career goals so if you have an upcoming interview which you are nervous about, please get in touch with your questions.