Make no mistake—successful interviewing is all about mastering behavior, particularly what you express during moments of criticism. Getting defensive is the shortest path to failing that test. As a career coach, I often counsel executives in the final stages of interviewing when a defensive posture can cost them the job. Your general demeanor is that important to your success rate.
So let’s go over a few practical steps you can take in the moment to make the right impression. Defensiveness is a protective trait, but it rarely serves you well in the business world. By distancing yourself from mistakes, blaming outside forces for failure, and casting harsh judgments on others, you’re probably trying to control the narrative and preserve your sense of self. But I encourage you to channel this impulse in one of the following ways to reach a more productive outcome.
How to Demonstrate Accountability During a Job Interview
1. Remember your “why.”
A bruised ego is usually the culprit for defensive behavior. So stop making situation about you.
Do you have loved ones who rely on you? Couldn’t you make the argument that you’re really at this job interview on their behalf? So as an advocate for their interests, what’s the best way to proceed? Forcing this perspective of service is a great way to de-escalate the situation and take the emphasis off your emotions.
Another route is to focus on the end goal. Beyond this role or opportunity, what’s the change you’re looking to make in the world? Many of my clients in healthcare, for example, regardless of their background or job title, want to make sure people have a better quality of life. Reminding yourself of the purpose behind your chosen vocation will again force perspective that goes beyond your immediate emotional response.
2. Recognize criticism as validation of your abilities.
If you’ve ever tried to close a sale, then you know that a prospect who agrees without further comment will rarely pan out. Questions mean engagement. They mean someone is seriously considering hiring you, not just paying you lip service.
Of course, you may run into people who criticize your efforts for all the wrong reasons. Maybe they feel threatened about working with someone with your qualifications—maybe they’re just looking for a target. In these scenarios, you are absolutely within your rights to politely cut the interview short and leave. But for every other scenario, you should see the criticism as proof that your candidacy resonates with the hiring manager. So when you respond to critical questioning, don’t try to defend yourself. Paint an alternate point of view and highlight what you bring to the table. Hard questions are usually the precursor to a job offer, if you handle them with poise.
Check out more tips on how to respond to curveball interview questions.
3. Use “I” statements.
When I feel defensive, my wife says I get “sharp” with my words. That’s putting it nicely. What she means is that I can sound accusatory. My main focus is on pinpointing all the reasons why someone else is wrong, or the situation is wrong—everything except placing the focus where it needs to be (which is on me).
Counteract that by forcing yourself to start the next few sentences with “I.” This places the focus on what you believe and the actions you’ve taken. And in most cases, it will help you avoid sounding defensive.
Remember: Your behavior matters to the interviewer, not your emotional state. You could experience a whirlpool of negative emotions in the moment, but if your response is humble and productive, they’ll never know.
4. Call out the elephant in the room.
If someone asks probing questions about a red flag in your work history, say a recent role that ended badly, don’t try to dodge the question. Address their concerns directly, and don’t be afraid to explain how you would approach the situation differently today. Taking this approach shows maturity, respect for the interviewer’s agenda, and emotional intelligence.
There is power in admitting to a universal struggle, so long as you keep it in perspective and don’t end your answer there. So, using this example, admit to the disappointment you felt when a previous role ended. Describe how you had to think on your feet to recover and move forward. And then pivot to an answer or anecdote that frames who you are in a positive light. This way, you release the pressure of having to deceive someone else, and you won’t appear elusive. Sharing a genuine and meaningful story during a job interview goes a long way toward building rapport and trust with the hiring manager.
Want more advice on finding a new career? Learn what top candidates have in common.