‘Knees weak, arms are heavy:’ Understanding and managing employment interview anxiety
By Irene Zhang
Job interviews are one of the most popular selection methods for hiring new employees, and for good reason; they can predict up to 17% of variance in a candidate’s future job performance (Cortina et al., 2000). When asked to report the feelings and thoughts experienced before and during a job interview, many people will share stories of sweaty palms, fidgeting, racing thoughts and fears of failure. These experiences can be broadly categorized into the phenomenon termed “interview anxiety.” Interview anxiety is an extremely common experience, but it has only recently captured the attention of researchers. McCarthy and Goffin (2004) are credited with developing the first comprehensive scale of interview anxiety which conceptualizes this type of anxiety as a situation-specific personality trait, and includes five dimensions: social (ie, worrying about social behaviour), communication (i., worrying about verbal, non-verbal and listening ability), performance (ie, worrying about outcome), appearance (ie, worrying about physical appearance) and behavioural (ie, experiencing physical symptoms) anxiety. Though interview anxiety is similar to other types of anxiety such as social anxiety and test-taking anxiety, it is not exactly the same as it incorporates elements from each of these types of anxiety, and only emerges in the event of an actual job interview. However, like other kinds of anxiety, interview anxiety can have a negative influence on normal functioning.
Interview anxiety can impact interview performance
Although interview anxiety is triggered by the formal environment surrounding job interviews and may not reflect a candidate’s actual competencies, it can have a serious impact on one’s overall interview score. Powell, Stanley, and Brown (2018) found an overall meta-analytic correlation of -.19 (ie, a moderate negative effect size) between interview anxiety and interview performance, meaning there is an established link between individuals who experience great interview anxiety and poor interview scores. Unfortunately, as interview anxiety can be unrelated to one’s actual fit and qualifications for the job, competent but nervous individuals may become accidentally overlooked in a competitive hiring situation.
Managing interview anxiety prior to the interview day
Since interview scores can determine who receives a job offer, it is important to understand how to reduce one’s interview anxiety. Experience with past interviews may help decrease interview anxiety (Huffcutt, Van Iddekinge, & Roth, 2011), however, one-on-one coaching with career counsellors is more effective for improving interview scores (Williams, 2012). Counsellors can teach coping mechanisms for alleviating and hiding anxiety from interviewers. Feeney, McCarthy and Goffin (2015) found that it is most beneficial to use problem and emotion-oriented coping. Problem-oriented coping refers to tackling the problem head-on by taking mock-interviews and reading interview tips to prepare, while emotion-oriented coping occurs when applicants receive emotional support from loved ones in advance and recall these messages of support in moments of heightened worry. Teaching these particular skills to applicants may improve their interview performance. Individuals can also be trained to apply evidence-based treatments for similar types of anxiety, like social anxiety, to the interview context. Feiler and Powell (2016) tested two such interventions, positive imagery (ie, imagining oneself to be successful and confident during the interview) and field perspective taking (ie, appraising the situation through one’s own eyes rather than taking the interviewer’s perspective and judging oneself externally), and found that both interventions were able to decrease self-reported levels of interview anxiety.
Managing interview anxiety on the interview day
On the day of the actual interview it may be comforting to know that in reality, interviewees over-estimate how much their anxiety is actually detected by the interviewer; interview anxiety is mostly a hidden internal experience of discomfort (McCarthy & Goffin, 2004; Sieverding, 2009). However, for candidates looking to minimize the appearance of anxiety, they should avoid speaking too slowly (Feiler & Powell, 2016), stay away from filler words such as “um,” “ah,” and “like” and try not to ramble and go off-topic (Miller, Gayfer, & Powell, 2018).
Interview anxiety is a multi-dimensional trait that occurs only in the job interview context. It is a very common experience that can affect a jobseeker’s prospects. By seeking out support from loved ones and evidence-based interventions from career counsellors, applicants can better manage their interview anxiety to perform their best in job interviews.
Irene Zhang is a Master’s student in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Guelph and a Junior Consultant for Organization & Management Solutions. She was a Gold Medallist in the Honours BA Psychology program at Western University. Irene has research interests broadly in recruitment and selection, with a focus on personality and interviews.
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