Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace



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When you last attended a job interview as a candidate, how did you prepare? Perhaps you reflected on situations in which you demonstrated your professional competence and leadership skills. But did you also work on your body language and interpersonal warmth?

Interviewers usually say – and believe – that they are looking for analytical skills, technical proficiency, initiative taking and so on. However, actual data shows that interviewers are disproportionately affected by candidate behaviours that should be largely irrelevant.

Notably, a team of computer scientists and engineers led by Iftekhar Naim at the University of Rochester used learning algorithms to analyse 138 recorded videos of interviews to identify candidate behaviours linked to interview success. They found that candidates who spoke more quickly (as measured by words spoken per minute) tended to receive higher interview ratings. Candidates using more positive emotion words (eg 'excited') and fewer negative emotion words (eg 'annoyed') were typically rated more highly. Candidates who smiled more were also evaluated more positively.


Interviewers make their judgments based heavily on first impressions

Keep on smiling

Perhaps interviewers perceive slower speakers as lacking in decisiveness or determination. The finding about the use of emotion words is consistent with interviewers wanting to hire positive individuals who will enjoy working for them rather than grumbling. Most interviewers would reject the idea that candidates who smile tend to be rewarded by higher interview scores – but the data showed otherwise.

A classic study led by the University of Victoria’s Robert Gifford similarly found that smiles mattered. Smiling correlated 0.38 with interviewers’ ratings of candidates’ motivation. However, gestures correlated 0.48 with ratings of motivation. Again, many interviewers would say that they are not influenced by candidates’ use of their hands, but the evidence is clear.

A study led by Murray Barrick at Texas A & M University further illustrates that many untrained interviewers are evaluating candidates on not entirely rational criteria. The researchers asked interviewers to rate 130 candidates both three minutes into the interview (after initial rapport building but before starting the formal, structured part) and then again at the end of the interview, which usually lasted 30 to 45 minutes.

Analyses showed that initial impressions after three minutes correlated 0.49 with final interview ratings. This suggests that interviewers unwittingly make their judgments based heavily on first impressions; they do not use the full interview to assess carefully the skills and experience of candidates. For candidates, then, first impressions really, really count.

The content of what is said during interviews matters

Reflect on experience

Of course, the content of what is said during interviews also matters. I coach candidates to spend hours reflecting on relevant experiences they have had and composing the best ways to communicate how their skills match each employer’s needs. For example, research led by the University of Arizona’s Nathan Podsakoff suggests that candidates who mention three non-technical behaviours may receive higher evaluations from interviewers.

One behaviour is helping others: voluntarily assisting colleagues with either tackling or preventing problems. A second is technically known as 'engaging in voice': speaking up with innovative suggestions for change that make a material difference to the team or wider organisation. Engaging in voice is not simply about criticising a situation but providing enough guidance so that others can see how it can be improved.

A third behaviour involves demonstrating organisational loyalty – for example, defending the organisation against threats, enhancing its reputation or cooperating with colleagues to serve its best interests.

Shrewd candidates research carefully each prospective employer

Honest ingratiation

Another candidate behaviour linked to better interview performance is known as 'ingratiation', which is measured by agreement with questionnaire statements such as 'I praised the employer’s organisation' and 'I indicated my enthusiasm for working for this organisation'.

However, effective ingratiating statements must necessarily be perceived as honest rather than insincere. Shrewd candidates therefore research carefully each prospective employer so that they can comment about genuinely admirable aspects of each organisation or otherwise indicate their interest.

Some candidates believe that they should 'be themselves' and speak completely honestly about their weaknesses, needs, and achievements without using ingratiation or other interview tactics. Researchers from Italy, the UK and Hong Kong, led by Bocconi University’s Celia Moore, have found that speaking authentically does help selected candidates to be more successful during interviews – but only those who are in the top 10%. So, 'be yourself' if you are certain that you are a high performer. Otherwise, trust the data that choosing both your words and behaviour matters greatly in interviews.

More information

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