Want to know how to absolutely blow an interview, no matter what occupation or industry you’re in?  All you have to do is shake hands, sit down, politely answer the questions you get asked, and let the interviewer control the entire meeting.

And yet, that’s what an awful lot of job candidates do.  They treat the interview as some kind of perfunctory step where their job is to avoid making waves and to demonstrate complete deference to the person on the other side of the desk.  They’re afraid to rock the boat.  Speak truth to power.  Stand up for themselves.  And to rationalize this compliant behavior, they probably tell themselves that they don’t want to come across as arrogant — or risk alienating the interviewer by asking tough questions or expressing a contradictory point of view.

But here’s the rub.  Would YOU want to hire a milquetoast candidate like this?  Especially for a position that will require the person to actually CONTROL some aspect of the precious business enterprise — or department — you’ve built up so lovingly over the years?  Virtually every professional position today, when you think about, requires a certain amount of assertiveness to achieve success.  If you’re a project manager, you’ve got to influence tons of different people to get the product out the door on time.  If you’re an accountant, you’ve got to bust the chops of that darned salesperson who never turns their expense report in on time.  And if you’re an HR professional, let’s say, you’ll have to be able to stand up to bullies in the workplace, negotiate tough deals with benefits providers, and possibly even go toe-to-toe with union executives on labor relations issues.

My point is that wimpiness just doesn’t sell.  Period.  If you’re in a professional career path, you simply HAVE to demonstrate some spine in your preliminary conversations with employers or you’re dead meat.  They won’t respect you, otherwise.  Or convinced you have what it takes to get the job done.

On the flip side, though, please understand that there is a fine line to be walked here — and that I’m NOT advocating you go on the warpath, swagger into your next hiring conversation, put your feet up on the interviewer’s desk, and say “I’ll be the one asking the questions around here, big fella.”  That’s an equally big mistake, for reasons I hope are pretty obvious.  Ultimately, though, your mission is to demonstrate in the course of a single hiring conversation that you can both CONTROL and MANAGE as well as BE CONTROLLED and MANAGED.  Make sense?  It’s a simple, but profound strategy to follow for selling yourself more effectively, and I’ve got to give my former boss and mentor, Phil Moore, props for this one — since I heard him give this advice to executives for years and am only just now coming back around to it and passing this wisdom along in a big way.

If it helps, visualize yourself as walking a dog, especially a big scary one like an alpha-male German Shepherd.  Now this type of dog usually thinks its pretty hot stuff, and if you let it, will strut around like it pretty much “owns” the neighborhood.  It will test you constantly, straining on the leash, growling at passerby, and pulling you in whatever direction it wants to go.  Let the dog do this, enough times, and you’re going to have a MAJOR problem on your hands — not to mention a pretty dangerous animal around your household!  But if you’re smart and keep the dog on a choke chain or a decent harness, and give it a firm yank every now and then, to remind that dog it’s not calling all the shots, you’ll be setting the tone for a great owner/pet relationship.  Think you’re in control, Bowser?  Yank.  No you’re not.

So if you look back at some of the interviews you’ve been on recently, especially ones that didn’t work out as hoped, you should ponder whether you asserted yourself firmly at any point during the conversation.  Did you push back on one of the interviewer’s ideas or assumptions?  Did you ask some tough (but not insulting) questions about the job, the company, and the challenges they’re facing?  Did you demonstrate your subject matter expertise by offering alternate solutions to a problem or gently criticizing an aspect of the company’s operations that are within your professional wheelhouse, like their website or brand identity, if you’re a marketing manager?  In other words, did you demonstrate convincingly to the employer that you respect yourself, know your stuff, and shouldn’t be taken for granted, in terms of your candidacy?

I know it’s tough for some people to consider pushing back on employers in this fashion, especially when your self-confidence has been whacked by a few months on the unemployment circuit, but it’s an imperative part of successful interviewing strategy — especially if you’re applying for a management-level role within an organization.  So don’t be rude, and don’t hijack the entire interview agenda, but pick at least a few spots to yank that chain and let them know that you’ve got the confidence and assertiveness to tackle their problems.

My favorite anecdote of all along these lines?  One of my former clients, a senior HR executive, had been out of work over a year and was getting extremely frustrated by the way she kept getting pushed around by junior recruiters who barely even understood her job function — and who kept asking very blunt, demanding questions about her qualifications.  Finally, in one particular phone interview, she reached her breaking point.  After trying to play the game, be nice, and tell them what they wanted to hear, she said she finally snapped, interrupted the snarky recruiter on the other end of the phone, and said “Excuse me, before we go any farther, I want to make sure you realize that I haven’t actually decided whether I want to be a candidate for this position or not.”  She said the recruiter immediately fell silent and then meekly responded by saying “What do you mean?”  My client’s response: “Well, based on a lot of things I’ve heard from my network about your company and how it operates, as well as based on how this phone interview is being conducted, I’m not necessarily sure I’d want to align myself with your organization.”

The outcome?  The “dominance” scales shifted and before she knew it, the recruiter in question was backpedaling, apologizing, and practically begging her to come in for a second interview!

An extreme case, for sure, but it makes the point.  In the dog-eat-dog world of professional hiring, you can’t afford to be out there playing defense, going along to get along, and trying your best not to offend anyone.  You won’t like the results.  So dig deep, find that part of you that knows you’re somebody worthy of respect, who would make a damn good employee, and let the employer know it — at least a few select times during the course of the conversation.