is my strong personality keeping me from getting jobs?

A reader writes:

Since I graduated with a PhD in Biology in 2011, I have had 15 interviews for research positions but no offers. In five of these interviews, I was the reserve and one candid employer told me although I was fantastic in the interview, he had to choose the person he “liked” best to work with, which was not me, of course.

I was wondering if it is fair at all to be judged on likability? I mean, how can they really know from a 40-minute interview if they like someone?

I have to admit that I have a VERY strong personality, but I’m a friendly, optimistic and hardworking character. I prepare for interviews very well and study the work they are doing, prepare questions to ask, and answer questions vividly with real examples from my work history. Can you please give me advice on what can I do to be more likable for employers at interviews and start getting job offers? I would really appreciate your help.

I wrote back to this reader and asked him to tell me more about what he meant by “very strong personality.” His response:

Well, I think I can come across as being overconfident with my opinions, but I always back them up with evidence and examples from my past work. I challenge interviewers with the way they are running their research and put my ideas forward. In my last interview, I stupidly disagreed with a scientific view the head of the panel put forward about a new technique used in the lab and I sensed he was embarrassed. I’m direct in my speech, my voice tone can be high, and if I thought an idea proved to be rubbish I will quickly dismiss it even if it is from my boss. Having said that, I’m also open minded to others’ views and if another opinion proved to be better than mine, I will quickly accept it and take it on board.

Okay, yeah, that’s probably the problem.

First, about whether it’s fair to judge candidates on likability — sure, it’s fair, and it’s really common. Hiring isn’t just about skills, after all; that’s a big part of it, of course, but it’s also about how you’ll fit in with the office, manager, and coworkers and what you’ll be like to work with. If an employer has two candidates who are both well qualified to do the job, and one seems like someone who’s easy to get along with and who they’d enjoy working with and the other seems like she’d be less pleasant to work with, why wouldn’t they pick the first one?  In fact, sometimes even if the pleasant candidate is a little bit less qualified, she’ll still get the job, because most managers don’t want to work with someone who seems likely to be a pain in the ass.

You might not be a pain in the ass, of course. But if you’re coming across as “over-confident” in interviews (and that often means arrogant), and arguing with them about the way they’re running their research, you’re almost definitely being perceived as one.

Look, it’s not that you shouldn’t speak up with you think there’s a better way to do something or that your ideas are right. You should. That’s a valuable thing in an employee. But there are people who know how to do that well, when the right time to do it is, and how to pick their battles, and there are others who manage to annoy and frustrate everyone around them because they don’t quite get those things. The former are much, much more marketable. (They’re also more effective in getting their ideas heard and implemented.)

And on top of that being annoying in anyone who does it, it’s going to be especially off-putting in your case, because at only two years out of school (and no work experience since then), you haven’t built up the professional standing and credibility that can sometimes make people willing to tolerate it.

It’s probably time for some humility in how you approach and interact with people.

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