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A cool hack for job interviews

22 February 2016

For all of you who would like to be better at interviews here is a nice little hack that can have wider reaching benefits.

A Shift in Awareness

A curious thing to be aware of in job interviews, but one that you possibly don’t think much about, is the state of mind of those who are interviewing you.  As an interviewee you have your own angst and nerves that grow large in your own head, but what is going on for the panel members?  As they wait for you they too have increased levels of angst.  Theirs is not worry about how they are going to perform (although they can have a little of that), one of their big worry is you: how are going to perform and will they be able to help you if you don’t perform well.  As they wait for you the following types of questions swirl around in their head: “Will this person be OK?” “What if this person is too nervous?” “What will I do if this person is a dud?” And these thoughts put them in a slightly negative mindset.  Add to this an inherent suspicion of applicants that many interview panel members hold and there can be a slightly negative tone emanating from the panel.  Combine this with your fearful emotions and here we have a recipe for things to go wrong.

The most powerful thing you can do, at the beginning of an interview, is to care for the emotional health of your interviewers.  They need you to calm their anxious thoughts and put them in a good mood. Truly they do!  And you do this by creating an upward spiral of emotional contagion.  I will explain about how to do this in a moment, but first a little theory about the concept of emotional contagion. 


Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion is a very strong and unconscious process that happens in people.  Because we have evolved to live in social groups it has been evolutionarily advantageous for us to develop the ability to read, and without conscious thought react, to the emotions of those around us, especially negative emotions.  In our hunter-gatherer tribe if one of our kin saw something that could be dangerous and felt fear it was useful if we learnt how to pick up on that fear very quickly and protect ourselves, even if we hadn’t seen the danger ourselves.  Consequently humans have become very good at having emotions ripple quickly through a group and we are super-human at catching others emotions, especially the survival emotions that are often dubbed the negative emotions – fear, anger, anxiety, regret, disgust.  In fact consistent research findings show that negative emotions are stronger than positive emotions by a factor of about 3 to 1.  That is negative emotions are 3 times more contagious than positive emotions.

 Image of emotional contagion


What this means for Interviews

What does this mean for you when you are being interviewed?  It means that your interviewers will very quickly pick up on and catch your negative emotions, especially because they are already holding slightly concerned emotions already.  This is not what you want.  Another psychological construct becomes heightened by negative emotions – confirmation bias.  People see and hear what they expect to see and hear because they unconsciously look for conformational evidence of what they think they should see.  In other words if they feel at all negative about you they will ignore good things about you and notice every tiny little thing you may do wrong – an ‘ummm’ before you answer a question, or a shift in eye contact, or a fiddling with your notes becomes confirmation that you are hiding something, or are not as good as you are saying you are so they should look harder for what is wrong with you – and hey presto, with confirmation bias they will find it.

What you need to do is make sure that at the very beginning of the interview you create an upward spiral of positive emotional contagion rather than a downward spiral of negative emotional contagion.  The theory of emotional contagion tell us that other people will catch the strongest emotion in the group and when they catch that emotion they then become contagious back to you – creating the spiral.  When you come into an interview and you are able to project positive emotions the panel will catch your emotion, heave a sigh of relief because they don’t have to worry about you, and they will feel good.  Through emotional contagion you will re-catch their positivity and so the spiral goes up.  Come into an interview unconsciously projecting your nervousness and emotional contagion starts again, only this time it is starting a negative downwards spiral that won’t help your chance of success in the interview.


Experiment with your Emotional Contagion

In subsequent articles I will talk about impression management, making a positive first impression and planning on being at your best, for now explore this topic a little more by monitoring and watching what happens to your emotions when you enter a room, or join a group.  The more awareness you have of emotional contagion the more you can influence its impact on you.

One final thought.  Emotional contagion doesn’t just happen in interviews – it happens wherever people group together (even a group of 2 people).  Try using emotional contagion to create positive groups.  For example in your next meeting start the agenda with a positive item not a problem.


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