Compatibility with your prospective boss is the one factor that will likely have the most profound impact on your ultimate job satisfaction – and maybe your career. Yet it’s remarkably neglected in the job interview. It's the proverbial elephant in the room that not enough job seekers dare to uncover. If you ask the right questions and listen closely, however, you can analyze the fit between you and your potential boss. You’ll increase your odds of career success exponentially.

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As workplace conflict plagues today’s office and continues to make HR headlines, there's no time like the present to brush up on this skill if you're conducting a job search or considering one. You may be thrilled about the prospects of the job of your dreams, but getting along with your manager is likely what will truly make or break a new position.

True, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. But more specifically, they leave managers’ personalities.

Why Style Matters

Why is it so important to place such high priority on the chemistry equation or personality style of your future boss? Isn’t substance and the work more important than the package? Not always. You can have the most brilliant Einstein of a boss, but if they consistently bark out orders or disparage you, all that brainpower eventually amounts to nothing.

If you can’t stand your boss’s personality or you find yourself at odds regularly; your tolerance threshold will remain low. (There are ways to manage up with a tough boss, but why not mitigate bad from the start?)

Conversely, if a manager is pleasant enough, most employees can tolerate the garden variety of irritating or bad boss misdeeds. If you have what you believe is a pleasant, reasonable, empathetic, trustworthy, communicative boss, you will likely be able to share your career concerns that emerge all along the way. They will be out for your best interests, and you'll stick around. In the case of a bad boss, you can't count on your needs being met and you'll be putting in more emotional effort - until you finally find something better.

The caveat of “what you believe is a pleasant boss” is important. The alchemy between you and your boss is unique versus the relationship your colleagues’ share with that person. Similarly, what you perceive as disrespectful, rude, overbearing or passive aggressive may just roll off their shoulders. So your interview questions and analysis must reflect the genuine you for the optimum match.

Why is the Elephant in the Room So Ignored?

Why are so few job seekers paying enough attention to the elephant in the room – boss compatibility, when it means so much? There are many reasons:

  • Job seekers are trained to be in the sales mode when job interviewing.
  • It's easy to forget that you are vetting them, too.
  • It takes hard work
  • It’s difficult to always be right, so many think it’s not worth trying
  • It’s not a science
  • Some are afraid to ask tough questions of an interviewer
  • Even when screening managers, candidates are so focused on the job itself, the work, the advancement and atmosphere, that it's easy to forget the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace.
  • Not enough job seekers know which questions illicit personality answers
  • Not enough job candidates know the cues for certain personality types

Yet being proactive in evaluating whether your prospective boss and you can function harmoniously is beyond critical. Your efforts upfront can result in positive, even life-changing results.

What Should You Ask and Watch For

So what can you ask to determine how your boss might think or operate once you're hired? Nothing is fool-proof, and you'll want to conduct your own due diligence and online searches, such as through sites like Glassdoor.com. You want to be sure you're not facing an obvious Terrible Office Tyrant, too. But you have the right to ask direct questions during the conversation. Just tread carefully and use diplomacy; this can be touchy. Here are some sample questions:

1) “What kind of person would excel at this job? Is there a particular work style for example, that would really fit the bill?”

You want to avoid talking about “personality” per se, as that is subjective and can put an interviewer on the defensive. Listen to the answers carefully. Remember to smile and avoid appearing threatening. Take note of the following:

  • Does the hiring manager look serious and describe the perfect candidate as “hard-driving,” “straightforward,” and so on? Or does the interviewer smile thoughtfully, emphasizing soft skills, speak gently and make strong eye contact?
  • Does the hiring manager turn the question to you, asking curiously about your work style?

What does your gut tell you after you hear these answers? You don’t have to agree with your boss’s approach or have the exact same work style to be successful, as Myers Briggs would suggest. But you will know eventually if you feel comfortable with the responses. If you don’t know, then you still have your answer: you’re not.

2) "How do you measure success for this position? Can you give me an example?"

Hypothetical questions are an excellent way to reveal much more about a boss than through more transactional questions and answers.

  • Does the hiring manager appear defensive when asked challenging or hypothetical questions?
  • Does the measurement of success sound extreme, highly subjective, inconsistent, unrealistic or demanding?
  • Is the answer thoughtful and clear, or fast and dismissive?
  • Does the manager take the time to think of an example? Demonstrate flexibility?
  • Is there importance placed on people skills? If there is, your potential boss likely possesses them!

How would these approaches play out for you on a day-to-day basis? Based on past experiences and managers, would they make for a compatible relationship? What seems to be the hot buttons that show up in the answers and in your follow-up questions?

3) "Do you seek a self-starter, active team member, or a combination of the two? What type of projects require each skill?"

You may be asked this before you get to pose the question, but you would still have the opportunity to delve further into the inquiry. If you’re the type of person who thrives on independence and your sense is that you're sitting opposite the world’s biggest micromanager, you have reason for pause. Conversely, if you work best with a team and learn that your prospective boss is has group meetings daily, you’ll have one more helpful data point.

  • Ask about the type of projects that require a team effort. That will force the interviewer to think through the question more carefully.
  • Does the interviewer seem enthusiastic when talking about managing others, or irritated? Look beyond words for body language, such as crossed arms, fidgeting, poor eye contact or short, abrupt sentences, all of which suggest negative feelings.

Since you'll be in the hot seat for most of the interview, this is also a golden opportunity to evaluate the nature of what is being asked of you - and to notice what isn't being asked. What's important to the boss and what isn't. It says a lot about communication style, too. For instance, can you merely tolerate someone who dominates the conversation? Do you actually find it a relief? This is your opportunity to pay close attention and decide if you sense that intangible feeling of trust and rapport.

It’s impossible to know exactly who is sitting across the desk from you in a job interview - but ignoring the elephant is not an option. When you consider the time, commitment and emotional effort you’ll be investing in your next job - putting the boss compatibility test to work is a small price to pay for the upside career potential.

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