Insecurity and treading the fine line between jerkiness and confidence in the interview

We all have it. I'm willing to admit to my fair share; though I can't explain why I couldn't be bothered to care whether people blogroll me (flattered if they do but if they don't, that's OK) but I get a little thrill when my dental hygienist tells me that cleaning my teeth is a real treat. Yeah, the human psyche is a weird thing.

The canine psyche too. Jonas has taken to plopping his head on my lap while I work. He has to be sitting up to do this and while it initially seems to be a "love me" plea, I think that perhaps he's wondering why, if I am home, am I not playing ball with him at that very moment. And did he do something wrong because he's SOOOO insecure (my poor baby). He just now decided to take a rest by the heating vent before he returns his head to my left knee.

One of my blog readers (I hate how that sounds: "my" blog readers) sent me a question that she felt was worthy of a blog post and I agree: "How do you come across as being on the top of your game and a valuable asset that Microsoft would love to have, WITHOUT coming across as arrogant?" Great question, right?

I can't tell you how often I see people crash and burn in the interview due to over-confidence. There's a real skill in self-awareness, especially when you can determine your interviewer's opinion of you and match your hot-shotness to their perception. Frankly, I could do without the hot-shotness (I'm a bog fan of substance over flashiness and I have the wardrobe to prove it) in the first place but if you can pull it off, good luck to you.

There is a level of confidence, though, that needs to be exhibited in the interview situation. A lack of confidence is a red flag in general ("does this person not think they can do this job?"), but even more so when influencing others and managing relationships is part of the job. And by the way. show me a job where that's not part.

So what we come down to is balance, as the blog reader suggests; appropriate confidence in the absence of boorishness. The former will help get you the job, the latter will mark you as "not a team fit" or "hard to work with". A little cockiness kind of fits at Microsoft (we'll probably tolerate more of that than some other corporations) because we feel that we hire great people and sometimes that greatness is known to it's owner. But if it goes too far, it's hard to see past it.

Some people interviewing at Microsoft might be intimidated by our brand, our reputation, the smart people that they are going to interview with. Some might feel the need to overcompensate. I can't change peoples' personalities. Some people have a level of arrogance that is going to sneak it's way out no matter what I say, or what anyone else says. But for the rest of the people out there that feel reasonably confident and want to make sure to get that across in the interviews without coming off like a jerk, I think I can help with some pointers (these are general pointers, not just for the Microsoft interview):

1) Be cautious of matching your interviewer's level of confidence. You may have heard about mirroring behaviors and while I think that demonstrating that you can fit well into a culture is important, consider that you are being tested. It's a pretty unsophisticated interviewer that conducts an interview session as Q&A without using some "tactics". For example, one tactic could be to test a candidate's composure by regularly interrupting them during their answers. It may not make the candidate love the interviewer, but it will give the candidate the opportunity to demonstrate how they may handle challenging interpersonal situations. Anyway, keep this in mind when you are interviewing. Sometimes a question is not just a question. Sometimes a "Wow, that's an amazing accomplishment. Who else was involved?" is not as simple as it sounds.

2) Always think about why the interviewer is asking what they are asking. When I have been the interviewee in the past, I have done this by anticipating potential questions, writing them down, deciphering their intent and creating a brief elevator pitch of an answer. The best example of this is the "greatest weakness" question. If you think that the interviewer is simply curious as to whether your weakness is significant enough not to offer you the job, think again. It's to assess your self-awareness and how you communicate unpleasant things and how willing you are to make changes to adjust your work style. It's hard to analyze the questions on the fly, but give it some thought before hand. That way, when an interviewer asks you about the secret of your success, you'll consider that they may be wondering whether you are going to step on their neck as you try to get the attention of your business leader.

3) Acknowledge others. It is almost always the case that someone else has played a part in your success. Acknowledging that is a sign of maturity. I think back to the times in my career where I have felt most successful. All of those times had something to do with a positive partnering situation; the time when I weaned a client group off phone interviews because I had built the credibility to select candidates for interviews, the time when I broke the team record for hires in one month (because the hiring group was willing to put in the extra time if I was...we made a deal), a record that I am sure has been broken since. The time when I managed an event that resulted in twelve hires even though a partnering staffing manager thought it was a bad idea (but was willing to support it anyway). Being able to talk about what others contributed to your success allows you to display some humility along with your ability to kick butt.

4) Acknowledge challenges and how you have overcome them. People who will tell you that their success has come easy are boring and, more often than not, liars. They also don't grow professionally a whole heck of a lot. I have learned more from my challenges than my successes and when my successes are a result of overcoming challenges, well, all the better. Take the example of the hiring group I weaned off phone interviews; this was a group of incredibly bright strategy folks. Building credibility with the truly brainy is a challenge. But I figured out who were the opinion leaders on the team and how I could build relationships with them, I determined that they would trust me if I demonstrated that I truly understood their business and I knew that I had to get a few good hires under my belt before I started to ask them to trust me. If I were asked about this in an interview situation, I could easy explain to the interview why I had success, what roadblocks existed and how I overcame them. Being able to do that in an interview situation will make you look insightful and bright, not cocky and insecure.

5) It's OK to be proud. In fact, I think that taking pride in accomplishment is a sign of humility. Reveling in the rewards of accomplishment is a sign of arrogance. Also, comparing ones self to others might come across as overly competitive and needy. Let the accomplishment stand on it's own and let them know that you are proud. And if they ask you why you are proud, feel free to revert back to point number 4, above.

6) When in doubt, stick to the facts. Driving sales up by x percent, executing against goals under a tight deadline, etc. At the end of the day, the company wants to hire someone that can get the job done. It's all good if they ask you about what you are proud of or how you feel about something, but consider the fact that they might simply be asking you what you accomplished and whether it was just what was asked or you exceeded expectations. If it's hard not to let a little self-love into the conversation (and I know some people like this...boy is it hard to manage my facial expressions eyebrows have a mind of their own), then stick to the facts.

I'm sure there are some other seasoned interviewers out there that may have some interesting anecdotes or advice to offer as well.

(And to the person that submitted the question, sorry it took me so long to get this out...I felt it deserved some time and thought).

Comments (26)

  1. Wine-Oh says:

    Im a seasoned interviewee as I made a career change coming out of grad school. From my experience I think theres a difference between being arrogant, being confident, and being proud of ones achievement. Also the difference of being over arrogant which to me is a sign of a cover up. For me I like to talk about my achievements and what I have done to make a difference in past jobs, and look for a parallel in the position I am interviewing for. We are all human and that question of "what can you do to improve on things?" is a hard thing to answer. I like to be honest and give a real world example of something I may have screwed up. But the difference is I then explain what I learned from it and how it wouldnt happen again. Could sound cocky to someone but I think for me I am sincere.

    I also hate talking about myself so much. In an interview the word I and me is over used. Even I get turned off to hearing myself say I did this… or because of me…

  2. vicki says:

    Like Wine-Oh, I am also a "seasoned interviewee" – after 13 moves in 18 years (military wife here), I have become a product of my environment.

    Interviewing is a true balancing act, as you point out, HH.

    I recently landed a PERFECT job (can I get a big WOO HOO?!) – and I am certain the interview went so well based on a simple principle: I evaluated each question before answering – and also questioned the interviewer. As I think I posted to you before, I think it is JUST AS important for an interviewee to BECOME the interviewer. I was interested in the job and they were interested in me – so let’s see if we match! (We did, obviously!! Insert another woo hoo! here:—–!)

    NEVER had I felt SO comfortable in an interview – knowing that I wasn’t trying to ‘be’ something or someone I wasn’t – the whole motto of ‘be yourself’ was exactly what I did. I used witty sarcasm in some responses with a smile – not arrogant, but VERY VICKI. I didn’t pretend to give responses based on what I THOUGHT the employer wanted to hear, but gave a very honest reply to everything that was being asked. Then I would ask a question to the interviewer that also required some thought – on both sides. It was a great recipie – at least IMHO!

    If people would stop trying to be their own cheerleader and just be themselves, it would really help everyone in the long run.

    Forgive the cliche’ that I am about to use, but truly, there is "No ‘i’ in ‘team’" and if a candidate walks in with a resume and attitude of "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!" – that’s a big turn off.

    Great post, HH – I always enjoy reading your stuff and you’re listed on my blogroll! (So that I can say, "I knew her when…!" LOL! 😉

  3. Would, "Dealing with my moron manager day in and day out encouraged me to work harder and be my absolute best….somewhere else" count as acknowledging others?

    Just checking…


  4. Simone says:

    This all sounds so crazy Heather. All of your rules and regulations are just extreme…mirroring behaviors? tactics? These are just mind games. Why would anyone in their right mind want to work for a company that mind **cks them? I’ve heard a lot about Microsoft’s hiring practices and this sounds in line. Have you thought that maybe you’re part of the problem?

  5. Great post. I’ve been meaning to blog about confidence vs. arrogance for a while now. Interestingly enough…my biggest "insecurity" (if I can call it that) is the fact that I can come across as being arrogant. However, I’ve also found that most people who mistake confidence for arrogance are often people who are insecure themselves. I find the confidence/arrogance line pretty tricky sometimes because I think a big part of it depends on the perception of the other person.

    Talking about the "Tell me one of your weaknesses." question: I don’t like it because everyone knows how you’re "supposed" to answer it. I find it better for the interviewer to ask something like: "Describe a difficult situation you were in and how did you overcome it?" This would probably be a better indicator of what this person finds difficult, how they deal with it and would probably avoid the standard "I’m a perfectionist." or "I sometimes set too high goals for myself/my team" type answers.  What do you think?

  6. eR0CK says:

    Hi Heather,

    Great post.  This comes at a great time, my g/f is preparing to interview for her first internship and I think this will give her some excellent things to consider before being interviewed.

    Personally, I think answering the "What’s your biggest accomplishment" question is particularly tough when you’re currently in college or have just graduated, but perhaps that’s the point :-)?

    /begin rant

    As an aside (speaking of jerks and jerkiness), I’ve been speaking to a recruiter from "a big4" and she tells me to call her at a specific time (Friday) so we can talk, but she’s MIA.  No return call, no e-mail, nothing.  Things like this reflect very poorly on a company.

    /end rant


  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Vicki – congratulations on the new position! I’m excited for you. Obviously, VERY VICKI sounded very good to them. You get a "WOOHOO!" from me too!

    Daniel – yes, I believe that counts. Also, I think you get bonus points for working the word "moron" into the interview conversation.

    Simone – nobody said anything about "rules and regulations". I believe I gave some pointers. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. Nobody is "mind**cking" anyone. Interviewing is a standard paractice so I don’t see it as a problem. You keep coming back here. I have to wonder what you are getting out of it if you despise Microsoft so much.

    Ian – great point. It does depend on the other person. I like your alternative questions. I can’t recall the last time I used the "weakness" question. I agree that there are more sophisticated ways to assess someone besides asking that question.

    eRock – I think with the accomplishement question, you can definitely go with something personal; paying for x% of your tuition, pulling out a good grade in a class you struggled with. I suspect that they are prepared for those types of answers when they are interviewing interns.

    And you are right. The manners of that big 4 recruiter seem to be lacking (especially after scheduling time to talk…why even bother if you aren’t going to be there?). Yeah, it does reflect poorly on the company.

  8. eR0CK says:

    I think Simone may be bitter because he didn’t get a job offer after interviewing with MS?  

    I didn’t get the job either, but I thought the process went well.

    All the questions MS asked me I felt were fair game, but I wasn’t what they were looking for.  In hindsight, I don’t think I would have worked out well on that particular team anyway.  You could probably say the proof is in the pudding 🙂

    Thanks for the advice Heather.  I tend to assume an interviewer wants to hear something school or IT related, but I suppose your right.

    As for the Big4, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and shoot her one last e-mail to reschedule time to talk, we’ll see how it goes.

  9. HeatherLeigh says:

    eRock – I interviewed with MS back in the 1994-95 timeframe and didn’t end up joining. SOmetimes the first interview isn’t the one that gets you the postion (and team fit is important), but we always like to keep the lines of communcation open so that people can come back and interview again…just something to keep in mind for the future : )

  10. Simone says:

    I don’t hate Microsoft. I root for the place. I even own a lot of MS stock. See, I’m just concerned that it isn’t living up to its potential. Microsoft is slipping a bit and I don’t see how scaring away the best and the brightest is going to help its cause.

    I am also a Zune owner. So there.

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    If by scaring away, you mean actually interviewing them, well, then I guess that’s how it’s going to be. Anyone who is scared by a thorough interview process would not enjoy working here anyway. Simone, when you become part of the interview process or speak from first hand experience, I will welcome your feedback. Nothing I have said here is outside of the norm for any company. In fact, we are well known for our excellence in the selection of hires ("so there").

  12. Lauren Smith says:

    The fine line between confidence and arrogance is located where you stop treating people like people and you start treating them like the idiots they are.

    It’s the difference between a smile and a sneer.

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    Lauren – that’s very poetic. I guess it’s a perspective thing. I thought the difference is when you start treating people like you are the biggest butthead in the room and you desperately want to prove it.

  14. Paul says:

    Very funny, Lauren.  Of course, in my experience, it’s very hard to think someone is an idiot and not treat them that way.  So, it’s best to banish such thoughts and believe that everyone is deserving of respect until they prove otherwise.  And, facial expressions are often misinterpreted or misunderstood, and can be largely dependent on the viewer’s state of mind, rather than the wearer’s intent — so best be careful there too.

    To the original question of how do you demonstrate the confidence that you are on top of your game without being overconfident, or appearing arrogant — this is perhaps the toughest thing that an experienced and intelligent candidate must overcome in every interview, and in fact in many, many situations besides interviewing where you need to "sell yourself".

    A good friend of mine was interviewing for a CEO position with a moderately well-known and rapidly growing software company in the valley.  It was an exciting opportunity because of the enormous growth potential, and excellent package being offered. His resume included starting and selling off a handful of software companies, and acting as CEO of several well-known software and internet technology firms.  A man with good reason to be proud, and even arrogant in his accomplishment, he is an extraordinarily generous and humble individual, who if you met on the street would betray no hint of his significant wealth or position.

    Yet after being interviewed, he was telling me about his interest in the company and how neat the technology was, and expressed to me a fear that he might have come across as arrogant, because he had naturally fallen into a mode of casual confidence, like he was already the CEO. He told me that he’d been meeting with the founder and chairman, and the person who he’d be replacing in the CEO role, and he’d begun to talk about what he would change in the strategy to manage the expected growth, when he suddenly felt that the tone of the conversation cooled considerably.  Whether his feeling was right or not, he was ultimately not offered the job (which had been presented as "his to lose"), and I suspect his assessment was correct.

    This experience was shared in the context of our discussion about how easy it is to shoot yourself in the foot, and a number of times when I had felt uneasy about either not saying enough for fear of claiming too much, or feeling like I was going too far and coming across as a pompous know-it-all.

    I think the best advice to offer your reader is to just relax and prepare adequately.  If you are well-prepared, you won’t be caught off guard by the infamous "name your faults" question.  If you are relaxed (and qualified), the right opportunities with the best fit will be offered to you. If you are respectful, confident and honest, you will eventually find the right fit for you and the employer, even if you screw up a couple of interviews, as we all have done.

  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    well said

  16. Deb says:

    I would like to offer remembering that preparation is key, but so is being yourself.  If someone comes in and starts giving pat, well-rehearsed answers to the standard questions, I generally have trouble bringing them on board.  (Of course, it also generally means I’ve been interviewing too much, or my mind is focused on other projects of the day, or I’m hungry.  In other words, I might be going on auto-pilot for a bit.)  

    Once I get back on track, I still don’t like "pat" answers.  Be comfortable, be yourself, and be honest.  I have had people who have given what would seem like the worst answers to some questions, but they also turned it into an opportunity to hit some of your other points (like 4).  They got hired anyway and turned out to be a great fit for our organization.

    So prepare, sure.  But don’t sound too rehearsed or like you’ve read every book on how to interview properly that’s available either.

    all the best!


    who doesn’t know of many organizations that don’tinterview, and use "tactics" to decipher if someone is a good fit or not

  17. Paul says:

    Yes, I understood being yourself to be part of being honest.

    By being prepared, I meant that one should have thoroughly researched the company and their goals (especially for the position) and the market space they compete in and the challenges they face.  If you understand those things, you will feel as comfortable and confident as is possible in a first meeting / phone call with someone who has the power to offer / not offer a job that you really want.

    When I’m interviewing, I look for signs of introspection, passion, creativity, and more than passing interest in the opportunity.  I could care less if you are a polished interviewee. In fact, if you are too polished, that will work against you as I will assume there is a veneer that needs peeling off to find out about the real person.  Practising answers is dumb (although there are places this will work for you, none of them are places that I’d like to work), but having researched the company, and  thought about relevant issues and where you fit, and possessing self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses are all signs of a mature individual that I would generally consider to be positive attributes.

    Unfortunately, interviewers often have to use "tricks" precisely because the interviewees are too canned in their responses otherwise.  If you don’t want to be subjected to this, turn the tables with your confidence, and ask relevant questions and engage in a conversation where you initiate discovery of the relevant facts about yourself.  Otherwise, interviews are what they are: an imperfect way for employers to try to ascertain the individuals who are best qualified and offer the best fit.

  18. Christine says:

    Hi Heather–this is off-topic, but I was wondering if you could speak about corporate impressions of working mothers and mothers who are trying to break back into the corporate world after staying home for a few years with their young children.

    Obviously it doesn’t necessarily have to be Microsoft-specific but I would really like to hear your thoughts.  (wonder why, right?  🙂 )

  19. Moving up says:

    Very informative post…I’m glad I came across it, as I am currently hitting the interview circuit. I am making the transition from entry/Jr. level to mid-level, and I am not doing well w/ interviews at all. I know that I can do the job with my eyes closed, and I have a killer portfolio (I’m in brand communications) to prove it. I’m having a hard time conveying confidence without coming off like a blowhard and displaying a little humility but not appearing timid and lacking confidence. Suggestions?

  20. HeatherLeigh says:

    Moving Up – the fact that you are asking yourself the question is a great first step : ) I would find a friend to do mock interviews with you. It will feel weird at first, but stick with it. Your friend can point out where you are coming on a little strong.

    I’d tell you that you should ask recruiters you have worked with for feedback on your interviewing style, but I know that many recruiters are loathe to give real feedback anyway. One of the things I dislike about the recruiting space.

    You could also invest in a career coach. Possibly pricey but you would get honest, neutral feedback.

    Otherwise, try to use some the recommendations above from myself and others (love that this post inspired dialog).

    Good luck (and it takes some humility to admit that you need help with your interviewing skills so give yourself some credit for that!).

  21. Barry says:

    Simone, aka Simulation  One, a repeating forum guest who claims to be fond of MS, owns stock AND a Zune, yet continually berates the company amidst curiously off-topic, acerbic remarks? Best be careful, Heather, someone may be interviewing you! ;-).

  22. I heard from many people often saying that interview is an art.

    In reply i often told them "living a good life is an art".

    Its not only regarding the interview but it is a fact about life that "what ever the situation is, always "Stick to your principles and values, be determined, have patience and  be honest." No body knows you can be the guide line or mentor for someone.

  23. Andrew says:

    Sometimes I just become amazed by such conversations regarding interviews – being confident, know why being asked X and Y, demonstrate all the points required, etc. Going as far as to recall an anecdote about hiring a juggler without seeing him juggling.

    Good linguists or boys-n-girls with some NLP skills will be considered as superstars against such interview technique; while people not interested in blah-blah talking and who do not handle some psychology makeup will be considered as underperformers. I’ve seen this.

    Please anyone tell me – with tons of articles like this, on interviewing preparations and techniques re Microsoft, how do they hire real outperformers (with hiring hundreds of heads at the time)?

  24. HeatherLeigh says:

    Christing- sorry I missed that comment. I’ll blog about that. Have togive it some thought. Good topic idea.

    Barry – I’m not buying one "Simone" is selling. I see what’s going on there. You know many people have started banning anonymous comments but since we often talk about job-seeking, I wanted to keep it open so people can ask questions. Simone makes me rethink that.

    Andrew – first, this isn’t an article, it’s a blog. There’s a big difference. Interviewing is imperfect. It’s difficult to determine what is someone’s natural inclination and what comes out just for the interview. That’s not a judgement, it’s just fact. I know this becuse I have interviewed someone and then worked with them and what I learned about them while working with them was very different than what was clear to me during the interview. People try to present their best self inthe interview and sometimes that goes a bit awry.

    If someone was a linguist and/or had some "NLP skills ", perhaps they could get through the interview, but they would need to have the skills for the job. I think people use tools all the time to manage their interactions with others. Whatever works, I guess. The point is that hiring someone that is going to behave badly is going to disrupt a whole team. So it is important for the interviewers, when they notice some concerning behavior in the interview, to consider it’s potential impact on the team if the person is hired and uncover whether that is real behavior or something that is interview-specific. Some interviewees don’t realize that what they preceive as confidence may come across as negative behavior and that was the point of the post.

    I hadn’t expected anyone to argue in favor of hiring people that were arrogant in the interview. Interesting.

  25. Barry says:

    Arrogance is a trait that should only be tolerated in those brilliant enough to ‘recruited’, i.e. one’s body of work exemplifies what is needed for a given project or strategic goal. This usually falls within the exclusive realm of executive recruiting, which typically involves limited term/renewable contracts, which you can read as "We can tolerate this jerk for a couple of years to get the job done." Otherwise, arrogance is merely the interviewee’s perceptual distortion, and should be a strong flag from the corporate culture/team player perspective.

  26. HeatherLeigh says:

    Barry – true that.

Skip to main content