say “I” — not “we” — in your interviews

This is getting discussed in the comments on a previous post, and the point is important enough to draw it out separately here:

When you’re talking into an interview about projects you’ve done previously, if you say “we did this” and “we did that,” it will not be at all clear to your interviewer what your actual role was. You need to be clear — “I did X,  “I made the decision to do Y,” and so forth.

One of the reasons for this is that lots of candidates use “we” to make their role sound bigger than it actually was. (Which I’ve discovered by routinely asking in response to “we” statements, “So what was your role in that, specifically?” — at which point it often comes out that their role was fairly minor compared to what “we” did.)

Your interviewer doesn’t care what your team did. They care what you did. Speak to that, and make it clear by saying “I.”

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Andriy*

    What if you talking about experience when you was a leader/a boss of a team. Won’t it sound too self-centered to say “I did” instead of “we did”?

  2. Andy Lester*

    You’re going to sound self-centered in a job interview if you’re doing it right, because it’s about YOU doing work that YOU did.

    If you were leading a team, then say “My team of seven implemented the Whatever project….”

  3. Anonymous*

    This is really important! Thanks for pulling this out and making a post about it.

    You never sound too self-centered in an interview (ok not totally true, but if you would be the kind of person to say “we” you aren’t going to ever end up sounding too self-centered, those who are wouldn’t ever consider that a problem).

    I’ve never used we to sound like I did more than I actually did, it makes me a bit sad to find out that it is likely that is what employers have thought. I need to fight the urge harder.

    1. Esra*

      We are so pleased you contacted us for this interview! We are certainly looking forward to working with you. When can we expect a follow-up?

  4. Malissa*

    I have lead teams. I’ve learned to always say, “I lead my team through ____.” If I’m just a team member it’s , “I helped my team out by doing X” or “I brought the idea of X to the team and it helped the team with Y.”
    There are lots of ways to show you were part of a team with-out devaluing your personal contribution. I particularly love the phrase, “I rode herd,” that the cover letter example used the other day. Because I’ve done exactly that, I just didn’t know the proper phrase for it.

  5. Henning Makholm*

    It’s okay to use “we” to set the stage and describe outcome, right? We needed a froobnicator that would let us flargle without gibnitzing the doodad […bla bla bla…] but all the vendors we contacted said that they [… bla bla bla …]. In the end I built an emergency froobnicator myself out of paper clips and electrical pipe, and it turned out to work really well. We’re still using that one for all new projects that don’t need kilotashel range, which has probably saved us a few hundred grand in rental costs.

  6. Nyxalinth*

    As I mentioned in the post that led to this one, I think it also depends on if you’re coming from a call center or retail career into something different. You get it banged into your head constantly that “there is no I in team”, so it becomes hard to drop that mentality. I didn’t even know that I should say “I” until someone suggested I say “I” instead.

  7. Jamie*

    This is great advice about hot to avoid being self-deprecating in an interview – but using “I” instead of “we” only works when you can back it up.

    I’m so guilty of the overuse of the word we that some of my co-workers think I have an imaginary staff of minions. The flip side of that can be using I when your role was tertiary at best.

    True story from when we had a new website designed and built, which I speced out and maintained.

    (I have a fair skill level with the code and function of a website – but zero skills in graphic design or color scheme – aesthetics are not my wheelhouse. If you can have less than zero talent at something then that’s me.)

    A former co-worker’s sole involvement was mentioning to the boss over lunch that our site was crappy and maybe we should revamp it.

    Site was crappy and did need to be improved so that was helpful involvement. However this somehow translated to “I designed, built, and maintained company website” on his resume.

    It was littered with keywords taken verbatim from the specs I wrote. I would give all the money in the world for someone to ask him in an interview his thoughts on orthogonal code or using CSS.

    Seriously – I would give a full paycheck to see that.

      1. Jamie*

        He left a copy of his resume on a shared printer so I saw it when I went to get my stuff.

        That’s a lesson for all the kids out there – if you print something you REALLY don’t want others to see you should hang out at the printer to make sure you didn’t accidentally print it twice.

        He also had copies of documentation I had created, for which his department had no use whatsoever.

        I would have been livid if this was someone who had even a 1% chance of pulling this off anywhere…but in this instance it’s just ridiculous.

        My brother is a nuclear physicist who has had his professional papers published in respected trade journals. But if at the next holiday I hacked into his laptop and stole his work and slapped my name on it …well I might get an interview but it would end before it began :).

        For the record that was just an analogy – by brother is not just brilliant, he’s awesome, and I’d never do that. We have an agreement – he doesn’t have an opinion on how my servers are networked and I don’t develop theories about nuclear physics. That’s works for us.

        So I guess the lesson is, take full credit for your own accomplishments…but make sure they’re yours.

          1. Anonymous*

            Oh I hand delivered his resume to him, with a side of sarcasm. I told him to feel free to list me as a reference to speak to his tech skills. He had no reply.

  8. Leigh*

    Damn and blast! I thought using ‘we’ was encouraged when you were leading a team, to indicate that you’re not a Supreme Dictator type.

    *scurries off to revise cover letters*

  9. John Hunter*

    Well said. If you are a manager one of the things you do is lead teams. I find it valuable to say specifically what I did but also talk about what the team accomplished. A manager’s job is to make the project successful and make other people successful.

    Sometimes these ideas are hard to convey to others. It is similar to answering hypothetical questions where, the way to “handle” the issue raised is to avoid getting into that mess in the first place. We were able to success not because of 3 specific actions I took during the project but because of the system I put in place and cultivated for years that allowed the team to succeed. But some people have trouble connecting long term system improvements to current project results.

    As a manager my main focus was on building capacity of my organization to succeed over the long term. That greatly reduced any fire-fighting I had to do. Of course for many interviewers great tales of fire-fighting play better than I didn’t really have to do much to make x,y and z projects successful because I set the stage over years creating a system that works well.

    Creating systems that work well often isn’t tremendously exciting and tales of avoiding disasters seem boring – I didn’t have to be heroic isn’t quite as sexy as and I was a hero in this way 3 months ago and then last month I saved us from disaster when… If I am interviewing I would want to ask why you have to keep being a hero, but I don’t think most people think that way.

    If you just talk about what I did it also can confuse interviewers. Those things are often not directly tied to accomplishing some business need. Creating the right systems, allow great results to be attained but it is indirect and not nearing as obvious as fire-fighting behavior what the benefit is. Most organizations are not used to the value of creating well performing systems so they just think of management doublespeak that accomplishing nothing. To show that the improvements made have real results I think you then have to switch from I did x,y,z to which allowed our team to accomplish a,b,c. Unless you really did have to DO most things yourself instead of creating the systems that allow others to perform well.

    1. Dan Ruiz*

      Excellent post. I feel the same way. I spend my greatest effort learning about and setting up processes that are reliable and don’t require a great deal of fire-fighting. At my last interview, I felt like my interviewer was more interested in heroic last-minute measures and hail-mary come-from-behind wins.

      Steady and reliable is a little harder to sell.


      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You might say something like this: “One of my main goals was to ensure that things ran smoothly. One of the ways I measured my performance was by the number of crises we had in a given year — if I was doing my job well, that number should have been zero.”

  10. Anonymous*

    good to know! I thought using “we” sounded better because it shows that I’m a team player… but maybe not.

  11. Anonymous*

    I wanted to throw in a short anecdote from an interview in which the interviewer (who would be the boss of the sucessful candidate) asked me what my then company did.

    I replied “They make chocolate teapots”. He asked me why I hadn’t said “We make chocolate teapots” . I would thought an interviewer would prefer an interviewee who was more neutral towards their company.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s pretty minor, but I’d find it mildly odd to hear a candidate refer to their current employer as “they” rather than “we” — you don’t want to sound neutral toward or detached from your employer, since the interviewer won’t want you feeling that way about her company if you end up working there!

      1. Anonymous*

        That’s a good point, but I was wondering if being enthusiastic about my then current employer might appear that I didn’t really want to move? (The interview was with another Chocolate Teapot making company if that adds some context)

  12. jennie*

    I’m so glad this is being addressed! One of my biggest pet peeves as an interviewer is when candidates talk about what “we” did and not what they did. I have a behavioural question to find out whether you’re a team player. All your responses should be about you and your role and how it helped the team/project/company. Otherwise, just as stated above, I assume you’re inflating your role.

  13. Anonymous*

    My husband works for a company that looks for five key strengths and one of them is humility. Interviewers count the number of times a candidate says I. I would use I cautiously. Sometimes it sounds as if you have done everything singlehandedly.

    1. Julie*

      Wow… the person conducting the interview actually *counts* the number of times a candidate says “I”? That sounds like it would be incredibly distracting for the interviewer, cause unfortunate awkward pauses in the conversation, and also not reveal very much, given that the word “I” ranks somewhere between the 10th and 20th most common word in the English language (depending on what list you use).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree with Julie. And you’re not hiring that team; you’re hiring just that one person — you need to know what they did, specifically. There are lots of other ways to look for humility.

      (This is a good opportunity to say that you can always find an employer who uses some crazy hiring practice, but you shouldn’t extrapolate from that to draw conclusions about how you should interview in general.)

  14. Will Weider*

    This is an interesting post. I was interviewing a candidate for a senior level position within out organization. I like the candidate, but the other two interviewers could not get past the fact that she kept saying “I” instead of “we”. I made a mental not of that in case I was ever interviewing again.

    I guess the best thin to do is to say up front that nothing big is ever accomplished alone and my primary contributions are to set direction and hire/retain/enable the team to accomplish great things. Since the purpose of the interview is to know about me I will generally use I and me where I typically share the goals and accomplishments of the entire organization.

  15. Anonymous*

    What if you are working in a job sharing situation where most of the work is shared. Wouldn’t you need to disclose when work was shared?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sure, but the employer isn’t hiring your work-share partner; they’re hiring you and so they mainly want to hear specifics about what YOU did.

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