Say you're about to go into an interview for your dream job. Of course you want to seem calm, collected, and confident, so you remind yourself to avoid fidgeting and talking too rapidly. You take a few deep breaths and steady yourself so you can seem cool and professional ... and then you walk in and bomb the interview.
New research suggests that when it comes to controlling our nerves, we are often worried about the wrong things. It turns out, it's not fidgeting and chattering that reveal sky-high levels of anxiety. It's speaking slowly, not acting assertive, and not demonstrating warmth.
Your tics aren't the problem.
That's the takeaway from new research out of the University of Guelph in Canada, which looked at exactly why interviewers tended to view anxious job seekers less favorably. The research team filmed 125 nervous students engaged in mock job interviews and then asked both the interviewers and outside experts to rate their stress level and what behaviors betrayed their anxiety. They also asked the participants how nervous they actually felt and what sorts of behaviors they were worried about. Nervous tics, it turns out, aren't what stressed job seekers should worry about.
"The fewer words per minute people speak, the more nervous they are perceived to be. Also, anxious prospective job candidates are often rated as being less assertive and exuding less interpersonal warmth. This often leads to a rejection from interviewers," explains the research release.
The takeaway here for job seekers and others facing nerve-racking situations is that you're probably focusing on the wrong things when you're trying to hide your anxiety -- and that your efforts to do so might be counterproductive because of that. That plan to stay cool and calm might result in the unintended consequence of being perceived as less than warm. Your efforts to think carefully about every word that leaves your mouth could result in just the sort of slow speech that interviewers see as a sure sign of nerves.
"Overall, the results indicated that interviewees should focus less on their nervous tics and more on the broader impressions that they convey," commented one of the researchers, Amanda Feiler.
So what should you actually do to avoid coming across as nervous? Since
being slow to respond was a dead giveaway of nerves, the researchers recommend that interviewees "extensively prepare for interviews in advance to lessen prolonged silences following questions and provide more details in their responses."
Also, since nervous tics such as biting your lip or adjusting your clothing make less difference in how interviewers will perceive you, trying to control them is mostly wasted effort. Instead, put your energy into being warm and assertive in the interview.
Finally, the researchers also note that the findings have practical implications for those on the other side of the interviewing table. Great job candidates can be horribly nervous, after all, so if you don't want to miss out on top talent because you were blinded by a person's interview anxiety, you "need to be aware of the negative bias that occurs in [interviewers'] rating of anxious interviewees," according to the research.
In other words, familiarize yourself with how anxiety affects candidates (and the perception of hiring managers) and try to correct for it. If someone seems like a strong contender except for their lack of warmth, it might be worth trying to bring them in for a more relaxed chat. The problem could be their nerves, not their character.