Is your defence mechanism keeping you in second place?

Ever come “a close second”?

There’s a good chance that if you have been looking for a job you will have been told at least once by a recruitment consultant or an employer that you “came a close second”. But second is never much good; there is no silver medal in the jobs race; and sometimes, there’s no medal handed out at all – I know of one instance where three people interviewed for the same role were all told they had “come a close second”!

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For most of us there is a natural tendency to try and sweeten the pill when we are giving bad news. Less charitably, it is likely to make it a less difficult conversation for the bearer of bad tidings. But rejection remains a bitter pill to swallow, however which way it is delivered. How you react to rejection, the degree to which you are aware of your reactions and how you handle them can make all the difference to your success in future.  And when dealing with bad news, one thing you should always be mindful of is something called your ‘ego defence mechanism’…

 Attack me and I’ll defend myself

“In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, ego defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies brought into play […] to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. […] The purpose of ego defence mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.” Wikipedia

Just as our bodies have mechanisms for dealing with physical shocks and wounds, so too do they have mechanisms for dealing with emotional upheaval and threats. Rejection and criticism in the form of negative feeback can undoubtedly be perceived as threats that trigger these mechanisms. And three common mechanisms you might be aware of using yourself, or have observed others using are:

Projection: Projecting the blame for the unwanted event – in this case, negative feedback or a rejection letter – upon others.

Denial: Going into denial and refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant event or the presence of a threat.

Displacement: Transferring or discharging your emotions on a less threatening object – the recruitment consultant, your family or friends etc.

Do you know when your ego defence mechanism has kicked in?

Many years ago, during an appraisal, I had to tell an otherwise excellent employee that one area of concern was their apparent inability to take criticism. “That’s just not true”, came the immediate and brusque response; and I really wasn’t sure where to take the conversation from there…

How many of us take bad news gracefully? And how much more difficult is it to do so once an emotional wound has been inflicted by a rejection letter or negative feedback? We often see it as an attack on ourselves; and when attacked, we are inclined to defend ourselves by going on the offensive…

How not being mindful of your reactions can lead you to failure.

It’s easy to blame the messenger, but if there’s one good reason why we should always avoid doing so, it is this:

A person who is in a position to give you feedback after an interview will be less willing and likely to do so if they sense the recipient is in a defensive/offensive frame of mind. And feedback is the only way you can learn how to better your interview performance.

Change your perspective and get a 360 degree view.

This will perhaps seem very hard but it may be worthwhile trying to see feedback (often perceived as criticism) as an opportunity to see yourself through somebody else’s eyes. Rather than defend the situation, encourage and open the conversation so that you find out and understand why somebody saw you in a particular way.

One common complaint is that feedback has been requested but not forthcoming. In most situations though, we can influence the chance of getting feedback by being mindful of the manner in which we are asking for it.

Countless times in restaurants I am asked the question “Is everything all right for you?” to which my stock response is “Everything’s fine”. Meaningless I’m afraid. If at the end of the evening somebody said “What one thing could we do to improve your dining experience?” I may have been able to say something that the restaurant would find useful. The nature of the question also makes the person you are talking to feel more comfortable in that it feels like dialogue rather being confrontational.

Try the same tactic. At the end of a meeting, or whenever you are asking for feedback try something like:

“What one thing could I do in order to come across more convincingly?”


“What one thing could I do to improve my interview performance?”

The variations are endless, but asking for one or two reasons rather than all the reasons will increase the chance of getting feedback and encourage a more honest (and therefore helpful to you) response.

Of course, they may not be right, so make sure you talk to people you know well to see whether they agree or disagree with the assessment. In HR-talk, this is often called a “360” – getting a total picture of ourselves by talking to people from all areas of our lives: our friends, family, colleagues, clients, boss and anyone esle we know well.

There’s no progress if you don’t seize the learning opportunity.

None of us like rejection and the easy option is to become defensive. Alas, this is unlikely to make us any more attractive when we next have an interview to attend.

Learning to see ourselves through other people’s eyes can be of tremendous benefit not only for the interview process, but also in our future careers – but only if we apply what we’ve learnt…

If you would like to talk more about this email me on or call me on 07525 857389


Who am I? A chap living in Nottingham, United Kingdom who perhaps has a much higher level of enthusiasm than ability leading to an interest in many things but mastery of none. A father of three no longer dependent children, or so they tell me, and husband to a one-time nurse who now works with me (or rather I work for). I attempt to take photographs and occasionally fluke half decent shots though thank goodness I no longer have to buy film. I endeavour to practice karate but with advancing years spend more time instructing them participating but actively participate in the more gentle tai chi. Professionally I have spent the last twenty years in recruitment – not always the most highly regarded ‘industry’. For my part I take great pleasure in helping companies to find the right people and a lot of satisfaction out of seeing them thrive and succeed. More recently I have spent a lot of time helping people who have, or fear they may, lose their jobs. For many putting a CV together is so difficult and then finding opportuniteis can be a major challenge. Interviews can be a different problem altogether but with a little help most people can perform a lot better than they otherwise would.

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