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When asked a question in a meeting or interview that you'd rather not answer, honesty may not be the best policy, according to new research.

People who are artful at dodging answers to tough questions and are eloquent when talking about things they're not sure of will be more trusted than those who are brutally honest, two Harvard Business School researchers concluded.

"It's troubling because we'd like to think honesty would be rewarded, but in fact, people who deftly sidestep questions are rewarded more than people who answer honestly, but ineloquently," said Michael Norton, associate professor of business administration at Harvard University.

The message for employees and job seekers is if you're stumped by a question in an interview or presentation, fake it, he said. You'll be more likely to make a positive impression if you respond eloquently, even if you don't answer the question, than if you answer truthfully or hesitantly, with pauses or "uhs" and "ums" thrown in,

The study showed groups of students a series of videos of candidates in a political debate, some directly answering questions and some dodging and giving evasive answers, including some that were on a completely different topic.

Those who answered the questions honestly but hesitantly were rated an average of 25 per cent less credible and likeable than those who evaded in an eloquent way, said Prof Norton, who did the study along with Todd Rogers, senior researcher at ideas42, a think tank at Harvard, and the founding executive director of the Analyst Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

As many as half of the students in the study could not even remember what question was originally asked after hearing an artfully evasive answer.

The researchers found that the effect works best if the speaker uses a transition phrase that acknowledges a question but then moves on to a different answer.

"So for instance, if you are asked about your plan for business reform, you start your answer by saying 'that's a really good question, we really have to think about the long-term issues facing the company.' And then you can say what you want after that because people are unlikely to notice that you've changed their focus," Prof. Norton said.

Another transition that works consistently well is to go from a specific issue to a very broad issue, he added. "Once you have got people thinking of a big picture. you can go back down to a specific about another issue and sound like you are still on topic."

Sarah Palin is a master of this, he explained. "She says things like, 'There is a much broader issue here that I'd like to talk about' or 'That's not really the issue that matters most right now, what matters most is this.' "

Obviously, as a leader you have a responsibility not to be evasive, but the research suggests it can be more effective to dodge than to stumble over an answer you're unsure of or reluctant to give, Prof. Norton said.



In job interviews, human resource people are looking for people with a sense of collectedness, and an apparent ability to answer any question gracefully. "Even if you are not completely sure of the answer, saying something confidently will help convince them of your poise," he said.

"People treasure style over substance, and will be inclined to trust you more if you come off looking like you know what you're talking about, even if you don't."

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WHAT TO SAY WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY

"I'm glad you asked that."

"That's a very good question."

"This is an important issue."

"I agree that is a big issue. But even more important is …."

"I'd like to address your concern."

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