What’s the secret of how to make a job interview or a job boring and alienating? No secret: Fire off or expect questions and answers that are more like bullets than like lightning. What’s the difference?

Start with “bullet interviews”: A bullet-riddled interview is one in which questions are rattled off by the interviewer as though they were cue-card individually-scripted monorail bullet-train queries embedded within a time frame and on a narrow communication track, itself tightly following and scripted to a schedule.  “How long were you at your last job?”…(candidate reply)…. “Why did you leave?”….(candidate reply)… “May we contact your previous supervisor?”… (candidate reply)…“When will you be available?”…. “ALL A(RE)BORED!” (my reply).

To complete the impression that a job applicant is facing a firing squad or an approaching bullet train, all that is additionally necessary is a monotone, expressionless, minimalist delivery along a minimal path, with little to no eye contact.

The essence of a bullet interview, like a bullet train, is not only speed but also utter linearity. No asides, jokes, divagations, elaborations, reversals, shunting, switched tracks, associations or surprises of any kind. This kind of tunnel-vision interview is not only interviewing “inside the box”, it’s also like interviewing with a box of ammo fired from a bullet-train door.

Lighter, Enlightening Lightning

A “lightning interview” is completely different, save for achieving two of the core objectives of any interview: to gather and transmit information about candidates and companies, respectively. What distinguishes a lightning interview from a bullet interview is not its actual speed, but its subjective speed: A lightning interview won’t seem to uneasily drag on the way a bullet interview will. It will seem much faster.

That’s because of another attribute it has: Like jagged, forked, unpredictable lightning it will move in unpredictable, engaging ways toward its predictable and desired outcome, the end of the interview (in both senses of “end”).

Example of a lightning interview: “How long were you at your last job?”….(candidate reply)…. “Sometimes a job stint ends up being short precisely because it seemed so long.”…..(Note how that opens the door to more volunteered applicant self-disclosure, e.g., “Yes, when I enjoy my work, the time passes like a bullet train.”…..”Why did you leave?”…..(candidate reply)….”Right. Situations like that make me wonder whether we should be asking applicants ‘What would make you leave this job?’, as well as ‘Why do you want it?’”….(which may inspire the candidate to jump to that branch or rail—hopefully not a job interview-frying 3rd-rail— to volunteer a reply)……etc.

Bullets for Service

The same distinction between bullet and lightning performance is valid and valuable even after the job has been won by the candidate and started. Those who stick to a monorail bullet-train script will rigidly resist pausing, veering off or jumping their scripted track.

Each box in their boxed-in mental service flow-chart has only two exit arrows (bullets): If “yes”, then say this; if “no”, then say that. The mortal (or at least human) enemy of their job performance is the unexpected, e.g., a subtle joke, an off-the-sale anecdote, a playful question, an unexpected observation or just about anything that isn’t lifted from the sales brochure, sales contract or owner’s manual.

For example, I walked into a wireless services branch boutique earlier today, after noticing some eye-catching, huge animal posters plastering the office windows and the interior walls—like what Easter Island lion statues would look like if there were any there to make the trip to Easter Island more interesting.

My Internet and phone service provider (with whom I am quite happy) is Telus. But the two reps perched behind the counter at the company boutique I visited and shall not name responded as though they worked for a company that should be called “Who, us?”

That’s because I went rogue and off-rail, off-leash and off-muzzle when, taking pity on them for how Easter Island statue-ish they appeared in their empty shop and empty time, I, smiling, ambled over to the counter they shared, and asked, “How much for a lion, per month?” (Which should have been an obvious allusion to the four or five life-size posters of lion cubs in the window and on the walls—yet another variation on the animal theme that wireless companies can’t get enough of.)

It was supposed to provide comic relief on a slow afternoon. Wham-bam, in and out in 30 seconds (since I had other things to do), after an exchange of chuckles and a goodbye wave.

Unfortunately, since my question was not on their “Askus” cue-cards, crib sheet or training syllabus, they seized up. “I don’t get it,” said one; “Fees for lions?”, asked the other. They still didn’t get it even after I connected the dots that were as obvious as the spots on a cheetah.

Normally, after a labored explanation of a joke, like the one I offered, one expects at least a perfunctory, pro forma chortle, if not a guffaw. Nope. I left feeling that had I stayed a second longer, a silent alarm bell would have been pressed. Even after I explained that I’m writing an article about the use of corporate animal images as totemic icons (which I really am—look for it soon), traces of bewilderment lingered in their expressions, like black smoke smudges from the exploded barrel of a misfired gun.  (If there is ever a next time with the two of them, I will be sure to wear a muzzle, rather than try to redirect theirs.)

That was not an “oil-and-water” interface and moment. No. It was a “bullets vs., lightning” customer-service firefight. I’m not only used to lightning (on the demand as well as supply side), but thrive on it. It makes everything so much more interesting, friendly, relaxed and informative.

It can also fill in the dead time on a dead shift in customer service.

The Ten Commandments from the Book of Jobs

A big problem with bullet-style interviews or customer service is that it sends all the wrong messages. Anyone who uses it may

  1. appear not to be well-trained
  2. seem guarded and diffident
  3. appear to be unfriendly or impersonal
  4. appear to be a tad slow on the uptake, if not truly slow-witted
  5. seem completely unspontaneous
  6. seem to be seriously lacking in imagination
  7. create the impression that his or her company’s corporate culture is responsible for some or all of these deficiencies
  8. make the (potential) customer feel unwelcome
  9. seem utterly unprepared for the unexpected and the novel
  10. make the company look bad, for any or all of the reasons above

Consider this list an itemization of “don’ts”—Ten Commandments from the Book of Jobs. If, indeed, it leaves anyone thunderstruck, it will  have served as a wake-up jolt of enlightening lightning.

And maybe help somebody lighten up.

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