By Liz Ryan
Can you suggest a good answer to the interview question “How do you handle stress?” I was asked that question on an interview last week. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t sure what to say. How does anyone handle stress?
I just said “When I’m stressed out, I take a deep breath and remember that every day has its ups and downs.” I’m not sure the interviewer was impressed. Is there a better answer to that question?
Here is one way to answer the question.
How do you handle stress?
Let me tell you a quick story about that. I used to work an hour later than usual on Wednesdays to cover the phones for our department between five and six p.m. We had to keep the phone lines open to take care of our west coast customers.
When customers would call between five and six it was almost always because they’d received a shipment and something was wrong with it. A lot of the customers were really angry when they called. Of course any mistakes in packing and shipping were a tiny, tiny fraction of our total orders but those customers were still angry.
I had to calm people down every Wednesday night. I would let them vent.
Then I’d say “I’m glad you called. I completely understand why you are frustrated. Anyone would be. Let’s figure this out and make it right!” I learned to listen patiently. That helped my customers settle down and feel better, and it helped me manage my stress level, too.
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A story that illustrates how you handle stressful situations is a million times more powerful than a clinical description of the steps you take to manage your stress. When you tell a story, the interviewer can see you in their mind’s eye, calming those customers on the phone and making them feel better. Stories pack a lot of punch!
I hate interview questions like this one, that ask a candidate to psychoanalyze themselves. Some interviewers swear by junk-science questions like “How do you handle stress?” but they are deluding themselves if they think their line of questioning will help them make better hires. Just because someone can crisply answer the question “How do you handle stress?” doesn’t mean that person is actually aware of their stress level in action, or has any special ability to manage their stress.
The interview question “How do you handle stress?” is fundamentally hypocritical, because we never talk about stress when things actually get stressful at work.
When is the last time you sat in a stressful staff meeting and heard your department manager say “Let’s talk about stress, you guys. Who feels stressed out right now? I know I do. How can we lower our stress level in the midst of this crisis? How can we take the long view and remember that these crises we’re dealing with are just silly business problems, and that nothing terrible will happen if we miss our goals this month?
“Your health is more important than meeting any dumb yardstick on the wall, you guys, and we all know it. Let’s not get confused about what’s really important — your health, your family and the relationships around you. Life comes first, and work comes second. No job is worth getting high blood pressure over. Let’s devote the rest of this meeting to brainstorming about ways to about reduce our stress!”
Interviewers say, “The how-do-you-handle-stress question gives me insight into the candidate’s self-awareness!”
Too bad the interviewer isn’t self-aware enough to know that a true interview is a two-way street. In an honest, professional job interview no one is analyzing anyone. In an upright job interview the interviewer doesn’t pull rank on the interviewee.
Sadly, too many interviewers fail to realize that the best way to interview candidates is to have a simple human conversation with them.
Some interviewers don’t understand that they are afraid to give up one drop of their petty bureaucratic power. They need to be on top and they need for a job applicant to be on the bottom. That’s sad. That attitude will keep them from being able to attract the best people to their organization.
In an authentic job interview two individuals with equal power in the hiring equation simply talk about some work that needs to be done, and determine whether the two of them are well-suited to do the work together. That’s all.
You have to wonder why some companies love to ask candidates “How do you handle stress?” Is it because they know their work environments are more stressful than they should be?
If you happen to be feeling cheeky one day and get this question you can answer this way:
How do you handle stress?
I work out every morning and do yoga so I don’t carry a lot of stress, but why do you ask? Is this a stressful work environment? Do you have too few people for the amount of work, or a high level of fear, or what?
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Maybe soon we will reach the point where candidates can ask “By the way, is this a healthy, functional workplace? Do people tell the truth about problems here, and handle conflicts forthrightly and with mutual respect? Are your leaders ethical and honest here? Are employees valued and reinforced in this company?
“Is this work environment accepting of different points of view? How do you know your company is healthy? Can I hang out in the lunchroom one day over the lunch hour and ask the employees what they think about your culture?”
Most employers would not be cool with this line of questioning and that’s the real problem with the working world today. You as an applicant are supposed to grovel and beg for a job but the employer doesn’t want to air any of their dirty laundry, even though if they didn’t have a problem they wouldn’t have advertised for help in the first place.
I don’t want you to walk out of an interview just because someone asks you “How do you handle stress?” but I do want you to be aware of the interview dynamics.
If the interview is set up is as a dog-and-pony show during which you are supposed to please the interviewer but there is no energy expended in selling you on the opportunity, then you can assume that if you get the job you are not going to be treated like a valued collaborator.
You are going to be treated like a lower life form. That’s not good. You deserve better.
The interview process tells you all you need to know about a company’s culture!
All the best to you Piotr —
Read the full article here.
This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine