Battling Shyness

I’m invariably surprised when, at employee training sessions or staff meetings, none of my Chinese employees ask questions.

Part of the reason, they tell me, is that schools don’t encourage students to ask questions – and certainly discourage them from interrupting teachers and professors.

This is very bad training for journalists, who have to ask questions and interrupt as part of their job descriptions.

There’s nothing worse than a journalist at a press conference who fades into the background. They should be out there, collecting business cards, introducing themselves to everyone, asking questions, arranging follow-up interviews and otherwise working on developing their sources.

But if shyness is bad for journalists, it’s murder on sales people.

Recently, a friend of mine needed to hire a business development person to find leads and schedule interviews with prospects, and he specifically wanted a young college student for the job.

To test for shyness, he had the candidates come all at the same time, to a group interview, to see how they acted when they needed to compete for attention.

In addition, he asked me to come in to serve as a potential customer. I was, in fact, a potential customer for his services – Carlo Wolff is a partner at Wolff & Tan, a consulting company that helps small businesses become more organized and profitable.

We conducted mock telephone calls in which I played the part of myself, and one job applicant after another pretended to call me and attempt to get through my sales resistance.

The experience was educational for the job applicants – they watched what the others were doing and saw what worked on me and what didn’t work.

It was also educational for me. I learned a lot about cold calling from watching Carlo run the job applicants through their paces.

Most of the applicants were local students, but one was from Singapore.

The difference between the Singaporean applicant and the others was dramatic. He was more outgoing, had a stronger presence, and also had some experience as well.

I talked to Wolff later about what he thought of the experience.

“Especially in this context, which is strongly culturally-directed, it was interesting to get people out of their comfort zone,” he said. “In a Western setting, this would have been easy. But here, it was a challenge for them.”

Next time, he said, he plans to push the applicants even further in the interview setting, and increase the stress level even more.

After all, sales is a high-stress field – candidates who cannot handle the pressure should be screened out as early as possible.

Next time I have a number of job applicants to interview I may well do the same thing. Call them all together into one room, and run a mock press conference. See who asks the most questions, who introduces himself and comes up to shake my hand, and looks me in the eyes, and gets my business card.

And the one who calls me up afterwards, and asks follow-up questions – that’s who will get the job.