Just as some people test well and others psyche themselves out and hamstring their own performance, some job candidates excel in interviews and others tend toward anxiousness. As a business owner, you're no doubt aware of this and, in an effort to get to the bottom of the true skills of the person in front of you (and simply be nice), probably respond to a stressed out interviewee with empathy, offering encouraging smiles and pleasant small talk.

Nothing in the world could be more natural, but according to recent research, this common-sense response to a highly anxious interviewee may actually be doing the candidate no favors. The paradoxical research findings out of North Illinois University were reported on the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog recently and provide food for thought for entrepreneurs hoping to help potential new employees perform their best at interviews.

When Being Mean Is the Nice Thing to Do

The research team studied how the behavior of a research assistant posing as a career counselor affected the performance of interviewees. With calm and relaxed jobseekers, things went pretty much as you'd expect--friendly interviewers put those across the table from them at ease and the candidate performance improved. But when the interviewee started the conversation already visibly stressed, the relationship between the interviewer's demeanor and the candidate's performance got positively weird.

"Under positive and neutral feedback, the more-relaxed participants gave better interviews than their anxious counterparts, making more impact and looking more hirable. But under negative feedback this pattern reversed, and the anxious were the stronger performers. This wasn't simply due to the relaxed participants collapsing under the baleful eye of the negative interviewer; the socially anxious actually benefited from the negative feedback, giving better interviews under that condition than any other," BPS reports.

So to put that simply: Being gruff and seemingly unhappy with stressed out interviewees actually improved their performance. What's up with that?


The key to understanding this counterintuitive finding, the researchers suggest, is the idea that we are all more relaxed when our pre-existing ideas about the world are confirmed. And that holds true even if your idea is that you're bad at interviewing.

"A socially anxious person typically has a negative self-image, meaning positive feedback is jarring and invites self-consciousness, distracting them from effective interpersonal engagement and social behaviors," BPS explains. So by being less nice to anxious interviewees, you're not confusing them by challenging their low expectations, allowing them to focus on their answers and your responses.

The first takeaway here might just be that humans are strange animals, but the scientists behind the research suggest it has other practical applications as well.

For interviewees, they suggest, the best way to prepare may be to try to break your habit of believing an interviewer's every twinge and eyebrow lift is a reflection on you. Try "thinking through all the reasons why someone might express an emotion without it necessarily being about you," the post suggests. For business owners interested in coaxing the best performance possible out of stressed out-candidates, the lesson--strange though it seems--may simply be to stop trying to be so nice.

Are there any anxious interviewees out there who can comment on whether this research jives with your personal experience?