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The 2 Job Interview Traits That Hurt Your Chances Most

Why taking a Stuart Smalley approach can help you get the job


It’s natural to be nervous going into a job interview, especially now that the government says the number of job openings has been falling. But a new study says there are two anxiety cues that could really hurt your chances: low assertiveness and talking s-l-o-w-l-y.

By contrast, don’t worry too much about other tics that might make an interviewer think you’re anxious. “If you fidget a little or adjust your clothes, no one will notice much,” said Deborah M. Powell, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada, who conducted the study with colleague Amanda Feiler. Their work was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology in an article called Behavioral Expression of Job Interview Anxiety.

Rating Job Candidates on Anxiety

Powell and Feiler had 119 Guelph students in the school’s co-op program complete mock interviews with employees of Co-op and Career Services as part of their preparation applying for positions. They asked the “job applicants” to rate themselves for interview anxiety and asked the interviewers to rate the candidates on that, too. Then the interviewers rated the performance of the applicants. (Powell told me she couldn’t think of any reason her study’s results would have been different with older job candidates.)

You want to go into the interview with a “positive image of yourself in your head,” noted Powell.

The researchers noted that earlier research found that candidates who were anxious in job interviews received significantly lower ratings on their interview performance and were less likely to be hired. But there hadn’t been any research showing whether anxious interviewees were any less suitable for the job.

“That was our motivation for doing this,” said Powell. “If you get a poor rating, you might be missing out on a job that you are well-qualified for.”

How Anxiety Shows Up in Interviews

Interview anxiety shows up in all sorts of ways, Powell told me. For example: stuttering, verbal fillers, appearing rigid, showing little eye contact and shaky hands. But her study concluded that low assertiveness and slow talking were the only types that really mattered to interviewers.

“People who were less anxious looked more assertive to the interviewers and did better in the interviews,” said Powell.

Does this mean that shy people have a strike against them when they apply for a job? “Could be,” said Powell. Her advice: “If you’re not naturally extroverted, you need to make sure you sell your skills. Don’t be afraid to take ownership of your contribution to a project.”

Slow talking proved problematic, Powell said, because interviewers felt it meant the candidates had more trouble coming up with detailed answers to their questions.

How to Be Better in Job Interviews

Powell said the results of the study indicated that when you go into an interview, you should focus less on your nervous tics and more on the broader impressions you convey. Assertiveness and “interpersonal warmth” are critical.

“Be confident, optimistic, professional and likable,” she said. “Those make the big difference in an interview.”

To get better at these things, advised Powell, do practice interviews with a friend or family member — “especially if you don’t like talking about yourself.” You want to go into the interview with a “positive image of yourself in your head,” noted Powell.

Think of this as Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley approach: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

Powell’s advice for interview slow talkers: Rehearse answers to questions you’re likely to be asked, providing details in your responses. That could lead the interviewer to talk you up internally and help result in a job offer.

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