It worked for Google’s CEO: The brilliant way to respond when you’re stumped by an interview question

It worked for Google's CEO: The brilliant way to respond when you're stumped by an interview question
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Sundar Pichai wearing a suit and tie: Google CEO Sundar Pichai

You can prepare for a job interview by studying weeks in advance, but there's still no guarantee that you won't be asked a question you have no idea how to answer.

The trickiest — and most important — questions are designed to help employers gain a deeper understanding of details beyond what's listed on your resume.

A potential sales candidate, for example, might be asked to talk through how they'd approach a short sales cycle differently than a long sales cycle. A candidate interviewing for a managerial role might be asked how they'd handle customer objections or a team conflict.

These questions aren't always easy, and they often cause most people to stress and freeze up.

For years, researchers have studied how stress impacts the brain, and there's a lot we can learn from their findings.

When you experience something that triggers immediate stress, the amount of information your brain is able to process (a.k.a your working memory capacity) decreases. Your working memory capacity is important for solving complex problems, such as tough interview questions.

Imaging being cool as a cucumber during the first 10 minutes of your interview. Then, you get hit by a question that causes you to experience sudden stress, thus making it more challenging to fully process the question and give a good response.

Stress makes you more vulnerable to entering panic mode, which is exactly what you want to avoid. When you start to panic, your working memory capacity decreases even more. This might be followed by a moment of awkward silence, ultimately bringing the interview to a grinding halt.

To prevent this from happening, the first step is to take a few deep breaths. Studies have found that deep breathing can prevent you from falling into a state of panic — and instead calm your nerves.

As I mentioned earlier, the worse thing you can do is to respond with silence. The most brilliant way to respond to a difficult question is to ask questions — and to continue asking until you get clarification on key aspects of the question.

This idea is similar to author Byron Katie's process of reducing stress. Katie, who is the founder of The Work, a method of inquiry for identifying and working with stressful thoughts, advocates that asking questions helps us get to the core of what's bothering us so we can relieve our anxieties and think more clearly.

There's proof that this works: In 2004, during his first interview at the tech giant, Google CEO Sundar Pichai encountered a tricky question about a product that he was unfamiliar with.

His response to the interviewer was simple: "I don't know."

Pichai, who recounted the experience at a talk in 2017 at the Indian Institute of Technology, said he went on to explain that he hadn't been able to use the product and then asked for additional information. As a result, the interviewer decided to give a demonstration of the product. As the saying goes, "Ask and you shall receive."

Remember, telling your interviewer that you don't know the answer is always better than spewing out a bunch nonsense in attempt to fill the silence. Research has shown that people with "intellectual humility" (a.k.a. the willingness to admit what you don't know) are better learners — and it's something hiring managers always take note of.

Here are a few types of questions that stump most candidates — and how you can give smart responses:

  • Unfamiliar terms: It's perfectly acceptable to ask your interviewer to define a word or term you don't know. Suppose you're interviewing for a position at Procter & Gamble, and the interviewer asks you: "Can you elaborate on a few strategy ideas for improving the performance of [X product] at the first moment of truth?"

    Unless you've held previous positions at the company, you probably won't know how to answer this question because the "first moment of truth" — Procter & Gamble's in-house term for the first few seconds of the interaction between a customer and a product on the store shelf — is a phrase not commonly used outside of the company.

  • Problem-solving: These questions are especially common in technical fields. Your interviewer might ask: "Can you walk me through how you'd lead a team in completing [X project] on a short deadline and with [X number of employees] out sick for a week?"

    With problem-solving questions, your interviewer isn't just looking to understand how you handle challenging tasks under pressure. They also want to know what recommendations you'd make on the basis of your knowledge, such as predicting how much time a particular project will take or what skills you'll need on your team."

    If this comes up, ask questions like what tools the company routinely uses for project scheduling and the number of employees who will be working under you. Such questions show that you're familiar with the key barriers of a specific task. It also demonstrates your curiosity and interest in how the company operates.

Hiring managers start off as being on your team. They want you to succeed. After all, the faster they fill a position, the more time they'll have to work on filling others. At the end of the day, they just want to know whether you're the kind of employee they want to work with.

Another thing to keep in mind: It's okay to make mistakes. You're going to answer a question less well than you could have. You're going to blank on something you should have known. But no company is looking for perfection. What it does want to know is how you're going to face adversity. Don't let the rest of the interview suffer from an earlier mistake.

Research on performance under pressure suggests that you start paying a lot of attention to your own actions when the stakes are high. But you can't have a natural conversion when you're focused too closely on every aspect of what you're doing.

By the time you get to an interview, you must have trust in your preparation. If you mess up, let it go and continue to interact normally with your interviewer. You'll have plenty of time to think about how to improve the way you answer once the interview is over.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also the executive director of the IC2 Institute. His latest book is "Bring Your Brain to Work."

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