Psychology Today: Here To Help


At the conclusion of a job interview, prospective employers will feel three ways about you:

  • Enthusiastic and Committed. This rarely happens at senior management levels, but it does take place with senior professionals having unique technical skills.
  • Unenthusiastic and Uncommitted. As a job candidate, "trust your gut" on this one. You will usually be correct.
  • Ambivalent. This is the common attitude among prospective employers. No one job candidate scored a perfect "10." Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses. Selecting from the current crop of job candidates means sub-optimizing or continuing to interview more people.

Techniques for turning ambivalence into commitment is our topic for today.

The job candidate needs to strike a balance between being appropriately enthusiastic about the opportunities of the job and being appropriately professional. These three techniques have worked with our clients and might be effective for you.

The Letter of Understanding.

Our client was a candidate for the position of Vice President, Operations. The prospective CEO/boss told our client that she lacked experience in his industry. This lack of experience was a big problem for the CEO. Our client responded with a "Letter of Understanding." The letter was organized along the following lines:

  • Summary of Understanding - A discussion of the corporate business strategy, its external environment, the internal operations, and how the position in question fits into the "big picture." She wrote that she was providing this section as a "helpful way of aligning my misinterpretations."
  • Position Challenges - This section is a discussion about the key challenges that will be faced by the incumbent over the next 6-12 months.
  • Qualifications - Based on the "Position Challenges" section, our client wrote a point- by-point discussion about her skills relative to the demands of the job.

This document consisted of seven pages of single space material of real substance. We later spoke with the CEO. He related that this letter had turned "profound ambivalence" into "enthusiastic support."

"Here is What I Would Do in the First Three Months."

This type of letter is far more operational than the "Letter of Understanding." It has the following sections:

  • Key Things You Want Accomplished Over the Next Twelve Months.
  • Action Steps You Would Take in the First Ninety Days

The "Three Months" letter works well with decision makers who are concerned that a job candidate might have a total disregard of the corporate culture. Its purpose is to convince decision makers that you are the type of person who proceeds logically and thoughtfully from a clear plan of action.

In writing a "Three Months" letter, it is important to print the word "DRAFT" at the top. The purpose of the document is to convince someone that you can think through what needs to be done. You don't want to lock yourself into a defined set of actions. You want to use the letter to justify further discussion.

"I Would Not Take This Job Unless I Thought It Was a Good Fit."

This is a suggestion we learned from Neal McKenna of Beverly, Massachusetts. Interviewers naturally think they are prospective "customers" in a sales relationship. They are wary that they are being improperly sold a "bill of goods." This kind of relationship is perceived as win/loose. The more you try to be enthusiastic, the more the decision maker perceives you are in too much of a "sell" mode.

You have the option of trying to redefine the relationship to win/win. One of our clients was a candidate for a biotechnology position. The job involved having a skill set which our client did not have. The decision maker was openly skeptical about the fit. Our client responded with the following:

  • "I appreciate there are risks for you if you hire me at this point. And I am sure you understand that there are risks for me as well. The risk for you is that if I don't work out, you will be back interviewing job candidates for the same position once again. That is a waste of your time and the company's money. And you don't want to do that.
  • "The risk for me is that if I don't work out, I will be back on the job market.
  • The personal and family trauma associated with once again being on the job market is, I submit, greater for me than the inconvenience of time and the waste of money for you.
  • "My goal is that at the end of one year, you will believe that your hiring me was one of your best decisions of the year.
  • "If I did not believe I could do it, I would not accept the job offer even if you gave it to me. Much as I would like to work for you, I would not accept the job offer because I have too much regard for my family and myself to put them through the trauma of yet another job search in such a short period of time."

This technique told the prospective boss "I Will Not Let You Loose." He got the job.

Ambivalence Reduction is the Key

The key to all three techniques is to focus on ambivalence reduction. You may or may not be more competent than your competition. But if you focus on professional ways to reduce decision maker ambivalence, you can go a long way towards getting the decision you want to hear.

Maryanne Peabody and Laurence J. Stybel are co-founders of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, a Boston consulting firm which focuses on career effectiveness of executives who report to Boards of Directors.

Contact them at tel. 781 736 0900.