What’s Your Interviewing Style?


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Most advice about job interviews, whether you’re the one trying to get hired or the one evaluating the candidates, focuses on things we should or shouldn’t do. Interviewers should ask uniform questions, focused on skills and experience. They shouldn’t make snap judgements. Interviewees should come prepared to talk about their achievements. They shouldn’t seem demanding.

I’ll bet most of you listening know all these do’s and don’ts, and yet interviews are still so hard to get right. We flub them and miss a great opportunity. We think we found the right person for a job, but really haven’t.

Today’s guest has spent years on all sides of this challenge. She’s been a job hunter herself, a corporate recruiter, a consultant to organizations trying to get better at hiring, and a teacher and coach to students and professionals trying to land their dream jobs. In interviewing thousands of people and studying relevant research, she’s identified a new way to get better at this important aspect of career and organizational growth.

The key, she says, is to understand and leverage your natural interviewing style. Anna Papalia is the author of the book, Interviewology: The New Science of Interviewing. Anna, welcome.

ANNA PAPALIA: Hi Alison. Thanks so much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: Before we dig into the four interviewing styles that you’ve identified, let me first ask: why is it still so hard to do well in interviews, given all the good advice out there?

ANNA PAPALIA: I think mainly it comes down to the fact that job interviewing is still very new. We have all grown up with this thing that we have to do to get a job, but when you think about it in historical context, we’ve only been interviewing for jobs for less than 100 years. And we don’t really know exactly how to do this. It’s a pretty difficult process to make complex decisions about people, and we have to figure out how to get through our own biases and how to present ourselves well in a job interview.

ALISON BEARD: You point out that most job seekers and hiring managers aren’t really trained on this. You might read some articles or read some books, but it’s not something that you study in school or get in your development programs. And part of the problem is that people think of it as a conversation and that it’s something that they can trust their instincts on, rather than following the pat advice that they do find?

ANNA PAPALIA: It’s this very strange thing that we think that interviewing is somewhat like a date. I’ve heard hundreds of hiring managers say that, “I just want to click with the person,” or, “I need to like them.” Why is that a prerequisite to hiring someone to do a job? And unpacking some of that is what led me to discover interview styles.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me more about what prompted you to start this research and develop this framework.

ANNA PAPALIA: So I was previously a director of talent acquisition in the corporate world, and I had hired lots of people. I came up to the end of my time and I realized that I wanted to teach both job seekers and hiring managers how to do this better because I didn’t have any tools backed in research or science to do this. I thought that was very weird. Some of the most important business decisions are made in job interviews. Who you hire changes your business. Who you hire changes the effectiveness of your team. It is so impactful, yet we don’t have any training on how to do this.

Then I started teaching at the college level. I was teaching thousands of students at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. And as most good teachers, I think all good teachers get to this point where you start to wrestle with, why are some of my students getting this and other students really aren’t? Is it about me? Is it how I’m teaching it? What’s going on?

And I looked out onto the classrooms of students, I was teaching three three-hour interview skills workshops a week, and I got to see how lots of people were interviewing. And when I took a deeper look into all of this, I realized that: What if we don’t all do this the same way?

So I wrote a personality assessment, and I collected lots of research, and I talked to 280 of my students to really get in and figure out, what do you prioritize in an interview? What are you thinking when you are interviewing? What’s important to you? And I have to confess, I assumed since I was so great at interviewing, I had spent over a decade in HR and I was the corporate gatekeeper. I thought to myself, “I’m going to discover interview styles, and of course the best style was going to be my style.”

And I discovered these four unique interview styles. We all interview as charmers, challengers, examiners, or harmonizers. And I think one of the best things I learned in this entire process is that I was dead wrong, that there isn’t one style that’s better at interviewing than others. There was an equal distribution. I realized that we all have a capacity to nail the job interview, but we all do it differently. And to be better understood in job interviews means understanding where we’re all coming from because we have entirely unique ways of doing this.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So there’s no one correct way to interview someone or be interviewed. So let’s talk about each of those four styles that you identified.

ANNA PAPALIA: There can be some variation, but there are four primary styles. Charmers want to be liked, challengers want to be heard, examiners want to get it right, and harmonizers want to adapt. So charmers go into an interview wanting to make a connection. They really don’t think so much about, are they going to see me as qualified? They think that they can win over the interview by using the force of their personality. They’ll even pay a compliment or tell a joke, which is much different than the other interview styles.

ALISON BEARD: And so what would the downside of a charmer be?

ANNA PAPALIA: I can speak from personal experience that charmers have a tendency to overemphasize that connection. And while they might get the person to like them, they may forget to talk about some of their successes, using some examples, answering those behavioral questions with some hard facts and data, and giving some real examples of what they’ve done can be something that they just really forget about. It can be kind of like the second thought because they’re always focused on being liked.

ALISON BEARD: And if I’m the hiring manager, what would charmer tendencies be?

ANNA PAPALIA: Well, they’re so interested in getting along, they forget to test the candidate. They forget that they need to make sure that this person can do the job. Are they technically qualified? And if you want a charmer hiring manager to like you, it’s really basic. You tell them that you like them.

ALISON BEARD: What about challengers?

ANNA PAPALIA: Challengers are more steadfast than charmers, and they are not as accommodating. If charmers look at an interview like a performance and they’re the star of the show, challengers look at an interview like a cross examination, and they’re going to figure something out. They’re highly skeptical, and they show that they’re qualified and they show their value by asking a lot of tough questions. Challengers are thought-provoking, they’re undaunted, they’re pretty strong, and they’re often long-winded.

ALISON BEARD: Okay, so I can see how challengers would work on both sides of the table – what about examiners?

ANNA PAPALIA: Examiners go into an interview seeing it as a test that they’re either going to pass or fail. Examiners don’t look at interviews like an opportunity to be liked; they look at it as a business opportunity. They are more private and very professional in their approach. But they also hold back quite a lot, and their answers can be much shorter.

Your interview style doesn’t change whether you’re a job seeker or a hiring manager. So if you’re an examiner hiring manager, you’re treating this like a test. You’re going to ask questions. You’re not going to elaborate, you’re not going to tell stories, you’re not prioritizing making a connection. You’re just making sure that this person can do the job.

ALISON BEARD: And finally, the fourth style, harmonizer.

ANNA PAPALIA: Harmonizers look at an interview like a tryout for a team that they want to join. They’re always talking about the collective, we, us. They talk about that as hiring managers or job seekers as what we accomplished and how we did this. They have a hard time owning their successes. They look at an interview as this opportunity to adapt to something that’s bigger than themselves. And you can see how this plays out, how they’re the polar opposite of a challenger. Challengers put a stake in the ground and say, “This is me.” They want to be respected and heard. And harmonizers are the opposite of that. “I want to get along. I’m collaborative. I want to adapt.”

ALISON BEARD: And I guess it’s also really important to quickly suss out what kind of person you’re facing across the table, whether you’re the interviewer trying to figure out what the interviewee is like, or you’re the interviewee trying to figure out what the interviewer is like. So how do you do that quickly?

ANNA PAPALIA: I think the old interviewing advice tells us that you should tell them what they want to hear. You should mirror the other person on the other side of the table. It doesn’t really work. I don’t tell people, “Figure this out so you can pretend to be something that you’re not.” I think understanding your interview style is more about how you can be more authentic, how you can better understand yourself, so you in turn can be better understood. I think everyone has left a job interview and you’ve thought, “Man, I hope I came across the way I intended. I hope I made the impression I was hoping to make.”

And here’s the thing. In researching interview styles, I found that this is connected to your personality. It’s like telling someone to go into an interview and change their eye color. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems with some of the advice that’s out there, and historically the advice that we’ve been given: “Just say whatever they want to hear to get the job.” That isn’t going to get you the job. An interview in the most basic sense is a set of questions about you. The more you know yourself, the better you’ll do.

And while I think it’s important that we use our emotional intelligence, and I’m a charmer, for example, if I’m in an interview and I realize that this person is my opposite because they are really drilling down on some questions and they are testing me, sure, I’m going to not tell as many stories and I’m going to shift my energy a bit. I can’t become an examiner, but I can become a softer version of a charmer to meet that person where they are.

ALISON BEARD: Got it. Almost a harder version of a charmer actually, more serious.

ANNA PAPALIA: Touche. Absolutely.

ALISON BEARD: That seems though hard to do on the fly if it’s this really innate sort of way of being driven by your personality. How exactly do you make those subtle adaptations so they still feel authentic, but you’re moving in the direction of your counterpart?

ANNA PAPALIA: It’s an excellent point. It’s actually harder to pretend to be something that you’re not. It’s actually much easier to be yourself and to be authentic. If you pretend to be something that you’re not in a job interview, how long are you going to pretend? You’re hoping that you get this job and then you work there for two or three or four years. When does the mask come off?

And this is the hardest thing, especially for some interview styles that are very accommodating like charmers and harmonizers. It’s really hard to put a stake in the ground and say who you are and be authentic in yourself. It’s a lifelong practice. It is a difficult thing to learn how to not be overly accommodating or have some hard boundaries around who you are and what you need. That’s a lifelong practice in so many things, but especially in how you perform in this artificial event that is an interview. Someone has this power over you, and what happens to you? What do you do? Do you turn up the volume? Do you turn on the charm? I think if you start there and understand what your style is, you know how to shift comfortably from your baseline.

ALISON BEARD: Is part of it that if your hiring manager isn’t looking for someone with the qualities of a charmer, then it’s probably not the right job for you?

ANNA PAPALIA: Well we could get deeply into the biases of hiring managers. We all believe our interview style is the best one. So whether you’re a charmer, challenger, examiner, or harmonizer, you will prefer the other charmer. I will always prefer and it will always be easier for me to be in an interview with another charmer. It’s difficult for me to interview an examiner who’s my polar opposite, and for challengers and harmonizers, the same thing. That’s what I hope this research and this framework helps us do is to be more open-minded in the interview process. Because right now we’re not, and that’s what creates a lot of problems.

ALISON BEARD: So when you introduce these ideas to either people looking for jobs or people hiring, what sort of changes have you seen once they understand their own style and the style of their counterparts? Is it less biased decisions, more success at getting the job, better person job fit?

ANNA PAPALIA: Well, I think with everything, it starts with acceptance. I remember when I first launched this and was studying my students’ reactions and asking them deep questions about how they felt when they received their interview style. It was an overwhelming response of feeling validated and understood.

I think if we start there and understand that we have a style and we have preferences and it’s born somewhere in our personality, that’s an excellent place to start to help people understand that we have strengths, and what I like to call overused strengths instead of weaknesses.

So as charmers, you’re very friendly. You’re always going to be warm and accommodating. But what is that as an overused strength? It means that you can come across sometimes as vapid, or maybe a chameleon. Maybe you’re just telling people what they want to hear to make them feel good. And there’s no their there. So understanding what your strengths is, you can therefore pull out how that can be seen as a negative, especially to your polar opposite.

ALISON BEARD: Do you find that some styles are more common or accepted in certain functions or industries or geographies? I can think of examiners in the tech industry and harmonizers in the healthcare industry.

ANNA PAPALIA: Yeah, so we have these stereotypes. We think that all realtors are charmers, all accountants are examiners. And I was curious about this. Our interview style assessment is scientifically validated, which means that a third party looked at our numbers and means that there’s a normal distribution of the data, which is also another surprising and interesting thing, that not all accountants are examiners. And not everyone in healthcare is a harmonizer. This is a stereotype that we believe.

What I found very interesting is there are an equal amount of harmonizers and charmers and challengers as accountants, but we have a tendency to believe that certain people are certain ways. And as hiring managers, it absolutely limits us.

ALISON BEARD: How does corporate culture play into all of this?

ANNA PAPALIA: For example, I have been consulting with a large organization for years to teach all of their hiring managers how to interview better. And the first time we went around and collected 176 of their respondents, of their hiring managers’ interview styles, and an overwhelming amount of the hiring managers were challengers. In fact, my data analyst was like, “This has to be a mistake. This has to be broken. There’s no way this is true.” But it was true.

What we realized is, is that an interview is you going out into the world and positively reinforcing one style or one way of doing things in an interview. Who you hire at your organization is you showing the world what your preferences are. We’ve all worked at companies where there are a lot more charmers than there are anyone else, or examiners or whatever. And that’s what company cultures are. Companies are just groups of people, 100 or 100,000 people, but they’ve been chosen somehow, usually by hiring managers in an interview process, and those hiring managers have biases. If you want to check to see how biased your organization is, it happens at the interview table.

ALISON BEARD: Give me an example of how you as a charmer, let’s first do it from the interviewee perspective. So you’re a charmer, you go into an interview with an examiner. How do you react in a way that maintains your charm but gives them what they need? So very specifically, if you come in and rather than me asking, “Hey, tell me about yourself,” I say, “How many balloons would it take to fit into this room?”

ANNA PAPALIA: I think in order to maintain your charmer style and to be true to your personality and to have integrity is to formulate the answer in a story form, because that feels very natural and comfortable to charmers. They also ask questions to make a connection, and they prioritize building that rapport. And in that way, it will be challenging for them because they’re not going to get that rapport to build off of. Examiners don’t need that in a way a charmer does.

So it would be a couple things. It would be moderating your own personal need for that rapport and not having it, and have faith that you can do it, and making sure that you’re paying attention to answering their interview question by giving facts and data and sharing examples from your work experience. You can put that into story form, and you can be charming while you do that.

ALISON BEARD: So I could talk about how I would do the calculations of the size of each balloon and the size of the room, et cetera.

ANNA PAPALIA: And a charmer, they would tell the story about why weren’t they in a room with balloons, or they would talk about their thought process. I’ll put it this way. Extroverts who are charmers and challengers, they talk to think, which means they’re more long-winded. They have to talk in order to figure out the answer. Examiners and harmonizers, on the other hand, they think before they speak. So they require some time to collect themselves before they go and give an answer. And that changes the impression that you make in an interview greatly. If you ask someone a question, “Tell me about yourself,” and they’re raring to go and they can talk for 20 minutes about themselves, or if you ask someone who’s highly introverted, it’s different. Introverts don’t love talking about themselves, let alone a perfect stranger about a job.

ALISON BEARD: It sounds like from the hiring manager’s perspective, the main thing is to just be aware that the person might respond differently, might need a moment, might be more long-winded than you expect them to be. But are there any sort of specific techniques, for example, that you would give a charmer interviewer who’s talking to an examiner interviewee?

ANNA PAPALIA: I think one of the techniques that I train hiring managers on, which is so important no matter what your interview style, is to write down what you want ahead of time. As a hiring manager, lots of biases creep in when there’s ambiguity. There’s lots of research on this.

If you go into an interview not really clear what you want, you’ll be swayed by so many things. Beauty, someone’s success in a different part of their career. I have seen so many hiring managers tell me, “We want to hire someone who was successful in sports.” Why? Just because someone ran a triathlon doesn’t mean that they’re going to be great at this job. So writing down what you want ahead of time limits and decreases the likelihood that you’re going to be swayed by something in the interview process. That’s really important. That’s why job descriptions are so important. If you write your job description out, if you know intimately what you need, and then thinking deeply about what your department needs, what the team needs, what the company needs, that’s huge.

And then, take it one step further and recruit an accountability partner. So it’s fine and good if you have this written down in your desk drawer, but it’s even better if you tell someone. And you get extra points if that accountability partner is your opposite. My accountability partner in my head and in my life is an examiner who couldn’t be more different than me. And sometimes I ask myself, “What would David do? How can I tap into that examiner part of me?” Because we all have this capability within us. We just prioritize being a charmer challenger examiner or harmonizer. And for hiring managers, having an accountability partner really helps us reflect on the things that excite us in interviews.

ALISON BEARD: What happens if you are the interviewer and you’re asking various kinds of questions, but because of the interviewee’s style, you’re not totally getting what you need? Maybe it’s a charmer who’s too long-winded and going on and on. Or a challenger who’s asking you questions back instead of answering the question. Or an examiner who’s just very short and to the point but not giving you any detail. Or a harmonizer who just seems to be like, “Whatever you think,” and, “Believe in the team.”

ANNA PAPALIA: I’ve been in this situation so many times, and this is the critical mistake a lot of people make. Some hiring managers who are overly accommodating jump in and try to help that person. “Well, what I’m looking for here is.” “What I hope your answer was.” Really? If an interview is a test, what you’ve just done is walked around, tapped someone on the shoulder and said, “Ah, the answer is D.” You’re not testing that person. If a candidate in an interview isn’t giving you what you want, that’s your answer.

Let’s say you’re asking someone a behavioral question, “Tell me about a time you dealt with a tough customer,” and they’re just not getting there and they’re not giving you the information that you need, I suppose you could ask a follow-up question, but I’ve very rarely ever seen that work in interviews. If they’re not giving it to you, they don’t have it to give. Sometimes it’s a lack of preparation, but often it’s just a misalignment.

ALISON BEARD: I guess my point is, as a hiring manager, I don’t want to miss out on good candidates because they’re letting their charming tendencies overwhelm them or their examiner tendencies overwhelm them.

ANNA PAPALIA: So as someone who coaches both job seekers and hiring managers, if a client came to me and they were having issues getting passed on to different rounds, I would dig in and help them prepare better. It sounds to me in this example that that candidate wasn’t prepared or didn’t practice enough in the interviews. And like I said before, this baseline, their interview style became an overused strength, and it was more lack of preparation and practice.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me a little bit about your view on preparation. How much preparation should an interviewee do to have pat answers versus go with the flow? And how much preparation should an interviewer do apart from knowing what questions they’re going to ask?

ANNA PAPALIA: I always say for job seekers specifically, “An interview is a set of questions about you.” So the more you know yourself, the better you’ll do. You build up yourself knowledge, you really get to know who you are, and practice those questions. You’re going to be more prepared. Challengers hate this. They’ve told me before, “I don’t want to go in scripted.” This is sort of an excuse some people tell themselves not to do the hard work. Everyone gets better at doing things the more you do it. Practice truly does make perfect, and interviewing is no exception. I have coached over 10,000 people. I have never seen anyone get worse. Everyone gets better the more they do this.

Now, there is a question about how you do it, right? I always ask clients that come to me for interview coaching, and I ask them, “What’s your prep like?” If you’re spending 80% of your interview prep focused on the company, reading the company’s website, and going onto the company’s information about their third quarter numbers, the company knows that information. They don’t know you. They want to know about you.

So you need to be prepared to answer questions like all the ones we talked about. “Tell me about yourself.” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” You don’t get better at doing that by not practicing those questions or thinking deeply about that. And I learned that really early on when I was collecting my research. What made some of my students better at interviewing? It was the ones that had the self-awareness, that understood who they were; charmer, challenger, examiner or harmonizer.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. It’s not a test on how much you know about the company; it’s a test on what you can do for the company.

ANNA PAPALIA: Absolutely. And for hiring managers, because they’re in this position of power, they have a tendency sometimes to not do the work and to rely on this thing that’s so bad, which is, “I just want to like them. I’m just going to have a conversation and see how I feel.” And we know that ambiguity leads to bias, like I said before.

We want to make sure that ahead of a job interview, you’re doing a couple of things. You’re really understanding exactly what you want, writing it down ahead of time, thinking deeply about your own biases, getting to know your interview style so you’ll also know what your bias is. I’m a charmer, I know I’m going to like other charmers. I’m just going to know that. I know I’m going to be swayed by some of these people. I know that sometimes some people’s interview styles are going to rub me the wrong way, and I have to practice looking past that and knowing that their interview performance doesn’t have a great predictor on whether or not they can do the job.

Hiring managers very seldom do this deep work because partly it didn’t exist, and they’re busy. We’re really busy. You have a team of eight. Now you have a job opening. That means you’re even busier. The work’s piling up. Looking for a job and hiring is sort of a part-time job. So I get it, it’s a lot to do. But if you take your time, you’ll make better decisions than winging it. Winging it never works.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, all great advice. Hopefully this will help our listeners be better interviewees and interviewers. Anna, thanks so much for being with me.

ANNA PAPALIA: Thank you. This was great. Thanks so much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Anna Papalia, author of the book Interviewology: The New Science of Interviewing.

We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks to our team: senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. And thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.



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