Anxious Job Applicants May Benefit From Tougher Interviewers

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For the approximate 15 million Americans suffering from social anxiety, job interviews can be rough. Traditional thinking — and common sense — has usually encouraged interviewers to be warm and friendly if they want to make interviewees feel relaxed and welcome. But a recent study in the international journal Anxiety, Stress, and Coping shows that cheeriness can actually hurt an anxious applicant’s performance. As surprising as it sounds, nervous interviewees may do better when interacting with meaner interviewers.

For the study, conducted by Northern Illinois University doctoral student Christopher Budnickresearchers posed as career counselors and offered practice job interviews to interested participants, assessing the applicants’ performance in response to positive and negative interviewer feedback. As it turned out, the nervous would-be applicants performed better with interviewers who acted tough than with those who acted warm and welcoming.

As Budnick explained in an email, this could be explained by the idea that interviewees are most comfortable in situations where the behavior of the person across the table reflects how they feel about themselves:

As expected, positive interviewer feedback benefited non-socially anxious individuals, but it did not benefit socially anxious individuals. Following positive feedback, socially anxious interviewees were less assertive, displayed more behavioral anxiety (such as fidgeting), and were judged as less successful during their interviews relative to non-anxious interviewees.  

In fact, socially anxious interviewees actually performed better when the interviewer provided negative feedback rather than positive feedback during the interview.

Nervous applicants can practice for interviews accordingly, Budnick says, by preparing themselves for the possibility of a less friendly interviewer. Likewise, interviewers can adjust their strategies on a case by case basis, and can make things easier on nervous applicants by, as weird as it may sound, being tougher on them.