When an interviewer asks you where you see yourself in five years, run! Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert argues that this seemingly-innocent is a trap – it’s really an opportunity for the interviewer to project their own drama onto you, thereby disqualifying you from further consideration.
I detest having my time wasted. Doesn’t matter if it’s queueing for a till, idling in stop-and-go traffic, or sitting on hold for ‘customer service.’ One sure-fired way to get me vexed is for another person to indifferently go about his or her job is such a way that their actions prevent me from getting on with things. I find it insulting when someone who clearly could do their job effectively decides that I’m not worth the effort. It’s especially maddening when the person condescending to me is the assigned gatekeeper for a potential new position. That’s not just patronising; it’s aggressively rude.
There’s one thing that gets me incandescently angrier, though, and that’s when a stranger accuses me of possessing sinister motives or vile personal attributes based solely on their own irrational prejudices. While it’s difficult to endure this from a listless store clerk, it’s infuriating to experience it in a job interview. Oh, yes … this happens. In fact, it happens so often you might not realize that some ‘standard’ interview questions are engineered specifically to make sure that this sort of character assassination transpires.
Case in point: the classic (and horrible) interview question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’
I hate this question. I hate everything about it. I hate that job seekers are trained to believe that the only ‘acceptable’ answers involve either obsequious posturing or else self-aggrandizing fantasizing even though there’s no possible correct answer to it. I hate that 90% of the interviewers that I’ve sparred across an interview table have had no earthly idea how to interpret the answers that they’re given. I hate that this meaningless question takes up time during an interview that could be much better spent actually discussing the bloody job, the candidate’s qualifications, the company’s culture, or any other topic relevant to the qualifying for the advertised position! (*ahem*)
If you weren’t serious about considering me for this position, then why in blazes did you bring me in for an interview?
That said, this question is actually more insidious than most people realize. At face value, it seems innocuous. That is, is seems like an icebreaker; a simple prompt to help a candidate to open up, relax, and maybe reveal something interesting. In most cases, though, that’s not what it’s used for. It’s actually an interview landmine. It’s used to get candidates to discredit themselves. Functionally, it has the same effect as asking a candidate ‘Tell me something about yourself that will disgust and offend me.’
Why? Because a candidate’s answer(s) to the question aren’t evaluated (99 times out of 100) based on the candidate’s perspective and worldview; the answers are evaluated by the interviewer’s perspective. It’s like tossing eggs out of a high-rise window in order to test their structural integrity. Spoiler: they’re all going to break. There’s a zero chance that they won’t break. So why toss them at all? In order for the interviewer to justify why he’s/she’s rejecting each (allegorical) egg for ‘inadequacy.’
See, here’s what’s really going on is a depressingly normal behaviour called Psychological projection. This is a natural mental and emotional defence mechanism, whereby a person denies the negative traits that they themselves possess by attributing those traits to others. People engaging in psychological projection often twist others’ words to imply some attitude or characteristic that the other person’s words don’t support. The classic example of this comes from schoolyard bullying: the bully projects her own feelings (or fear) or vulnerability onto her victim, and then rationalizes her abuse of the victim through anger at the victim for allowing herself to be so vulnerable.
Here’s how the projection process works in an interview: when an interviewer asks ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ the question forces the candidate to speculate about circumstances that are largely or wholly beyond his or her control. Would you like to be promoted? Get a large pay rise? Get transferred to a more prestigious post? Sure. Of course. Most everyone wants those things.
Even the monied dilettantes who want for nothing still desire advancement, if only to smugly insult their peers at the country club.
The trick is, those outcomes are usually not up to you! If you’re not the boss’s kin, then management decides when and how you’ll be rewarded (if at all). You can say what you’d like to have happen, but unless you’re already somehow an expert on the company’s internal culture and bureaucracy, you’re almost guaranteed to overstep your bounds – and thereby insult your interviewer, like this:
Candidate: ‘I’d like to be promoted from Junior Clerk to Senior Clerk at the end of five years’ time.’
This is where the projection process kicks in: the interviewer who didn’t manage to get him/herself promoted thusly thinks: ‘Become a senior tech in only five years? What arrogance!’ Meanwhile, the interviewer who did manage it thinks: ‘Take five years to become a senior tech? I did it in four. This fellow must be a clueless moron!’
Let’s say that the candidate answers the five year question by describing elements of his or her life that they realistically can control instead:
Candidate ‘I’m going to make significant progress on finishing my degree during nights and weekends, and I’m going to have one (possibly two) more children over the next five years.’
The interviewer who doesn’t have a family thinks: ‘She isn’t a team player. If she’s not willing to work late nights and weekends, then she can’t be trusted to meet deadlines.’ The interviewer who prioritised her own family (or education or whatever else outside of work) meanwhile thinks: ‘What a selfish person! She’s going to cheat the company every chance she gets to take care of [whatever] instead of her assigned work.’
‘The things we dislike most in others are the characteristics we like least in ourselves.’ Marian Keyes, Rachel’s Holiday
In both examples, the interviewer projects her own experiences onto the candidate even though the candidate’s circumstances, qualifications, and expectations are often completely different from what the interviewer has experienced. The candidate is an outsider; it’s completely unfair to condemn the candidate for answering based on the standards and practices of the culture that they came from rather than the standards and practices of a culture that they’ve only just encountered.
So, why do so many interviewer’s do this? Because it’s normal for people to assume that their own experience is ‘normal.’ That is, people irrationally expect everyone else to have the same formative experiences, outlooks, beliefs, etc. Therefore, when evaluating a candidate’s answers, the interviewer assesses the answer based on what she would have said. If the candidate’s answer doesn’t match, the interviewer experiences emotional dissonance … and often sudden, irrational anger.
That last part is the most insidious. When the candidate’s answer dredges up memories that the interviewer is uncomfortable with (e.g., dark deeds they committed to get ahead), the interviewer then rationalizes her own behaviour as having been necessary or justified. The interviewer then projects the guilt for what she did onto the candidate – all twisted drama, rationalization, and denial.
That’s why this question is such an insidious trap. Most candidates’ answers to it are innocuous and forgettable. They’re been (at best) spun sugar in conversation form: hollow and unnourishing. There’s nothing there to judge. Human nature being what it is, though, a poor interviewer will do exactly that: judge. Since there’s no actual substance to evaluate, the interviewer will then project his or her own fears, regrets, anxieties, unresolved slights, bitterness, and lingering shame onto the candidate’s answer, and then damn them for sins they haven’t actually committed. That’s why this question isn’t just a waste of time; it’s also a potential death-trap.
The interviewer alone chose the time, place, and rules for the encounter, and optimized everything for his or her advantage
I’ve only ever found a few ways to counter this sort of situation. These recommendations come from my assertion that interviews should be treated like fencing matches rather than interrogations. Rather than expose exploitable weakness, I prefer to spoil the ambush by (metaphorically) attacking first. Does it always work? No. Not at all. Most of the time, the ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ question is just a rusty bear trap because the person you’re taking to is almost certainly going to discredit whatever you say. The only way that I’ve ever found to escape the psychological projection trap is to immediately attempt to reverse it as rapidly as possible. 
If you’re speaking directly with someone that is expected to be in your supervisory chain once you’re hired, consider this: ‘Where do I see myself in five years? That depends on you. My intent is to see that you get promoted into the higher-level role that you want. If I’ve done my job right, then I’ll have helped you achieve your goals. I hope that you’ll reward that loyalty by promoting me to take your current role once you’re done with it. So, what do I need to do for you to help you earn your next promotion?’
That sudden reversal – it’s not me it’s you – changes the equation. Instead of being free to project, the interviewer suddenly finds him- or herself hard-pressed to answer questions about their own goals, and how advancement works in the company. It cynically begs the question by assuming in the setup that the candidate’s loyalty and hard work are guaranteed.
Another technique is simply reverse the question: ‘That depends. You know the company’s culture far better than I do. Where do you think I’ll be in five years if I work hard and exceed all of your expectations?’
As before, this line of attack takes for granted that the candidate is going to be a great resource, then shifts the conversation so that the interviewer spends the question talking about herself. This is crucial: lead with the implication that you’re going to be a strong subordinate. Get that cemented in the interviewer’s mind and then get the hell out of the spotlight. Don’t give the interviewer any potential fodder to project with. The more that the interviewer talks about her own agenda and troubles, the more she starts to visualize you as an indispensable part of her solution.
This is what every ambitious professional manager craves: loyal allies who will work hard at boosting their career. Be ‘that guy,’ and you become indispensable to your boss.
The intent is to waste as little of your time as possible in an exchange where have almost no chance of accomplishing what you came for (that is, getting selected for a job). When you see flashing light ahead and the cars in front of you slowing, you get off the motorway and continue to your destination via surface streets. The same principle applies to interviewing: as soon as you hear the old ‘five years’ question start up, disengage immediately. Don’t idle in the conversational wasteland; nothing good can come out of it. Instead, escape to somewhere (metaphorically) where you can make meaningful progress towards your objectives.
One last thing: the ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ question is a tip off that your interviewer doesn’t know how to interview people properly. If the interviewer truly cares about candidate as people in their own right, then their question would be phrased ‘what are your personal and professional goals over the next five years?’ A boss who truly believes in helping people grow knows that no one can accurately predict the future, and doesn’t ask anyone to try. Instead, she asks potential teammates what they want to achieve … and then figures out how to use her resources to help make that happen.
 In the Army, we were taught that the best way to survive an ambush was to immediately charge the enemy and break through their lines. That is, spend as little time in the ‘kill zone’ as possible. If you were fast, bold, and lucky, you might gain an advantageous position behind the enemy where you could then dominate the fight. I argue that the same general principles hold true at the interview table, too.
Title Allusion: Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.