What is the difference between kabuki and job interviews? One comprises predictable, stylised, repetitive posturing; the other is a form of Japanese theatre.
How foolish is it to ask a candidate for a job to outline her theory of leadership? Pericles, Solon and Napoleon have not been called for an interview. Besides, any literate applicant can parrot house orthodoxy. How idle to inquire what interviewees are bad at, when they can train themselves to avoid trick answers ("nothing" or "only interviews") and feign a becoming modesty?
How ludicrous, to judge people's integrity on a numerical scale; possessing that quality or not is a binary choice. Interviews are meant to persuade those interviewed that they have been given a fair shake. Doing that entails asking better questions.
A few folk with good nerves dare to game interviews, sometimes even in a wry, witty manner. One colleague of mine intended to respond to the old chestnut, "tell us how you confronted a management problem", by playing the committee a video of his obstreperous EL2s. A second declined to offer examples of "judgment", arguing that was the sum of all the others being evaluated. Artful candidates shine even when asked at the end of an interview if they have something to add; they know better than to reply, "when might you make a decision" or "no, nothing really".
Light-hearted dares of that sort must be a relief to committees swamped by rote incantations of excellence. When I first read a review of a book of mine, I trawled through looking for adverbs like "extremely", "uniquely" and "remarkably". Cloying self-praise of that order is littered over the floor of every interview room. A more reliable gauge of EQ would be asking candidates how they have bounced back after failure.
If introducing wit into the process sounds like frivolous heresy, then selection committees could emulate past Soviet practice. For top jobs, the Soviet Union quickly gave up recruiting brain-boxes, since they proved too sceptical and impertinent. Generalists were replaced by engineers who at least got the job done. In Moscow, wit was the preserve of former persons.
Interview panels would do well to pause after one threshold question, the one which a diffident astronaut is asked in the clunky film, Ad Astra, the same one that Jennifer Byrne puts to contestants on Mastermind. "Are you ready?" Determining the answer to that question is the point of any interview, so why not ask it directly? Those who professed no doubts about their capabilities or ambiguity about their objectives could be winnowed out straight away. Others who focused on making their team as well as themselves ready and fit for purpose, willing and prepared to work co-operatively with other teams, they would have earned a second look.
Allowances could be made for intuition and instinct. Applying those qualities need not mean recruiting clones, taking a set against a candidate first entering the interview room, refusing to consider seriously any Collingwood supporter, or picking staff on the basis of their strict adherence to the management fad in vogue (what one British ambassador fairly called "bullshit bingo").
After all, intuition was one reliable mechanism for picking a partner before we resorted to swipes on Tinder complemented by leisurewear shots on Instagram. As a family, we used intuition when selecting a nanny by remote control, from Ireland while we were living in France. Our task, successfully completed, was to find alternative phrasing for the question: "but are you really an axe murderer?".
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Perhaps we might dispense with interviews altogether, instead giving the top candidates a limited period to demonstrate talent in the job. If that technique works for footy coaches, why could it not be applied to the public service? At interview, a prospective AFL coach is now expected to provide cogent, informed analysis of team structure, trade prospects, premiership windows, list management, soft tissue injuries and now - in a recent bout of bullshit bingo - mindfulness and vulnerability.
Out in the real world, all that rigmarole was set to one side when three clubs (North Melbourne, Carlton and St Kilda) needed to replace their coaches during the hurly-burly of the last home-and-away season. All selected interim coaches, each of those won some games and made his mark, all were confirmed in their positions.
We have been adopting a similar approach with prime ministers. Leaders whom we did not select and elect have enjoyed a run in the job, then been confirmed narrowly (Julia Gillard), tossed out (Kevin Rudd), endorsed by a whisker (Malcolm Turnbull) and validated by a swing in their favour (Scott Morrison). No interview panel, whether in the form of a leaders' debate or an extended sit-down discussion, would have supplied us with any more relevant insights into likely performance.
To amplify that point, consider the examples of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Neither has been confronted with a question that exhausted their repertoire of fudges and weaves, bluster and bombast. "Are you ready?" would simply elicit the glib reply, "always have been".
A half-way house between interviews and internships might be case studies. In his new book (ToughCustomer, MUP) Allan Fels mentions two intriguing hypotheticals.
One would entail asking a senior functionary not what he had done right, but what his predecessor had got wrong. Cynics would recommend being preceded in a job by an incompetent, then succeeded by a usurper.
A second would invite candidates to consider their next step if a minister instructed them to do something dodgy, with sacking the penalty for disobedience.
Both would be salutary but not sufficient. On-the-job testing should complement on-the-job training.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.