“Ms. Keromosemito, how can I best prepare for an Assessment Center?” – this is a question I have repeatedly been asked and generally do not answer. On the one hand, because I am convinced that there is no point in preparing for them.
On the other hand, because some companies do the weirdest things and advertise them as Assessment Centers. I have heard that in the past, participants were woken up in the middle of the night to measure the level of their commitment and that they were served lobster to find out whether they are familiar with how to eat it. Personally, I have never experienced any of this. Maybe that was before my time, around 1952? A few years ago I decided to say good-bye to the topic of Assessment Centers. Therefore I have no idea what happens during those procedures these days. Maybe nowadays poke bowls are served rather than lobster?
One not very original question that is regularly asked in interviews – whether as part of an AC or not – is “What are your weaknesses?” I find this even duller than the lobster test because the answers are always the same: 1. Impatience. 2. Perfectionism.
From a diagnostic point of view this question is therefore completely pointless. After all, the purpose of tests or interview questions is to differentiate between suitable and less suitable applicants. In other words, to separate the wheat from the chaff. But if everyone gives the same answer, the question does not reveal any differences between the candidates.
How come everyone gives “impatience” as an answer? For a long time I was convinced that (prospective) managers give this standard answer because it is socially desirable. If I am impatient then, reversely, the others are too slow or too stupid. So although I claim this to be my weakness, interviewers will actually interpret it as a strength. However, learning to handle their own impatience is one of the top 3 goals that managers in my coaching sessions are trying to achieve. For a lot of managers, this is a genuine concern rather than just a phrase.
Mr. G., head of Engineering in an industrial corporation, is one of those managers. He tells me – “In more than half a dozen workshops, we redefined the tasks in our area. Everyone was involved. We also agreed which services we will no longer be offering as a result of our reduced manpower. Yesterday I overheard that – contrary to our agreement – Mr. P., who always complains the loudest that he has too much to do, was helping a colleague from another department with a structural calculation. When I asked him why he was doing that he replied – ’It won’t take long anyway.’ In situations like these my patience always wears very thin!”
I encourage Mr. G. to close his eyes and to once again think back to the situation. Then I ask him – “At that moment, what did you think about your employee?”
Mr. G.: “Idiot!”
Me: “When you think ‘idiot,’ what emotions do you feel?”
Mr. G.: “Impatience. Anger. Rage. I just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him violently!”
Me: “In this state of mind, what would you most like to do with Mr. P.?”
Mr. G.: “Fire him!”
Just for the record – Mr. P. is a very competent and committed employee in Mr. G’s team. How can it be that Mr. G. would genuinely like to fire Mr. P. at that moment?
From a biological point of view, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role here. Dopamine is released when we manage to do something, when we are successful. We then experience something like pride, joy, or a feeling of happiness that can be very close to euphoria. Because that feels so good, we want more of it. We become addicted to this feeling. It works like a drug. Over time, we need bigger and bigger successes to release dopamine and to experience the same ecstatic feeling. Neuropsychologist Friederike Fabritius describes this in her fascinating book “The Leading Brain.” As a former McKinsey consultant she explains that this is also the reason why bonuses have to increase every year, otherwise employees are no longer happy. Should you not be one of those employees who can look forward to a higher bonus each year, you will no doubt still be very familiar with the desire for “more.” We constantly buy ourselves new cars, shoes, or smartphones although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the old ones. While our first flip cell phone kept us happy for many weeks, the feeling of joy when we get smartphone number three doesn’t even last half as long. Our economic system is based on the fact that we enjoy getting a kick out of buying products on a daily basis.
The craving for this feeling of joy is also evident in the fact that we seek new challenges again and again, that we spend hours, weeks, or years trying to find a solution to a problem. We become deeply absorbed in tasks. One project ends, a new project begins. The next one is bound to be more demanding, bigger, or may have to be completed in a shorter period of time. We set higher and higher standards, rush from success to success, without ever really being genuinely satisfied. That is why in my coaching sessions I encounter people in top positions with very good salaries who have achieved a lot, yet they are unhappier than a young professional. They need their shot of success.
If we don’t get this we end up in a bad mood and irritable. We are having withdrawal symptoms. The worst thing that can happen is that someone refuses to behave the way we want them to while we chase the next thrill, the next kick. Then we start to regard this person as an opponent, an enemy, a problem, an obstacle. Managers are very creative when coming up with names for those employees: low performer, underachiever, or idiot. This is always accompanied by the same mix of emotions: It starts with an uneasy feeling when we are stuck on the way to success. We perceive this feeling as impatience. If the other person still does not do what we want them to we think – “idiot.” Impatience then turns to anger. Once we have thought “idiot” for long enough, this anger transforms to rage. And once we have talked ourselves into believing for long enough in our corporate career that we are surrounded by “idiots,” then we become helpless. Impatience, anger, rage, sometimes refined with a shot of helplessness. The ingredients are always the same. Almost like a classic cocktail.
“One Idiot, please!”
“Shaken or stirred?”
“Doesn’t matter, but please make it a double!”
True to the motto – if I am not allowed to be happy then I can at least get drunk. We drink this cocktail again and again, knowing that the hangover it leads to will be of the worst kind.
How can we escape this intoxication? In his book “Waking Up,” neuroscientist Sam Harris stresses – “Without continuously resurrecting the feeling of anger, it is impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments.” There are several possibilities for putting a stop to this anger.
You could distract yourself taking a 10-minute walk around the block. Simply escape the office, stretch your legs, catch some fresh air – or grab a coffee in the cafeteria. Not efficient? Bottling up your anger, letting it out on your way home using your accelerator and ending up getting caught for speeding is not ideal either. Coming down on your employee like a ton of bricks neither gets you any closer to your success, nor does it improve motivation in the team. The much better idea is to get out and check whether it already smells like spring outside.
However, you can’t just storm out of a meeting every time you are feeling a little impatient. It may also be sufficient for you to change the way you sit. Put your feet on the floor, feel your body and realize that you are surrounded by your colleagues. They don’t share your opinion and, from your point of view, they are behaving in a – shall we call it– unexpected way. That does not make them your opponents, your enemies, or idiots, even though it feels that way. Just take a deep breath and maybe go for a walk after the meeting?
Mr. G. has developed a strategy for himself to handle his impatience: Each time he thinks “idiot,” he imagines a shady character standing at a bar offering him a cocktail. He knows that it contains heavy stuff that will knock him out instantly. Mr. G. shakes his head – “No thanks.” Since then he has calmed down a lot. His wife confirms this too.
What would Mr. G. reply today when asked about his weakness? “I have a weakness for Idiot on the Rocks and lobster?” I cannot recommend this. I suggest sticking with “impatience and perfectionism.” Then he will be excellently prepared.