For a long time I have been working on being a more assertive person, someone unafraid of going up to people and crossing the social barrier that often seems to stand between us. I am someone with strong opinions, but I only really express those opinions when given the opportunity. The truth is that my openness, my confidence, my ability to seem in control, relaxed and articulate, depend on who I am with and the circumstances in which I happen to be. It takes a lot of mental effort to reverse the effect of my surroundings and I often fail. One particular situation in which this is true, and I am sure I am not the only person with this problem, is with job interviews.
In this context, I found this Ted talk by Amy Cuddy fascinating. The main message is that you can affect your state of mind by changing the position of your body. By taking on a high-power pose, making yourself bigger, you lower your cortisol levels and increase your testosterone levels. You become less responsive to stress and more risk-tolerant.
I found myself thinking about job interviews I had been in. There were a few occasions I had felt in control, but there were also many occasions that I was on the defensive, that my stress levels soared. I am almost certain that in the former situations my body language was open, even dominating and in the latter it was closed, protective. And I am certain my interviewers, whether they were conscious of it or not, were influenced by it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could, as Cuddy suggests, prime your body for confidence by making a few power poses before your next job interview? A job candidate faces a natural disadvantage: he is entering a situation where is, by definition, the least powerful person in the room. The interviewers, by virtue of their position will be confident and they will take on high-power poses. The interviewee will very easily respond by taking on low-power poses. It’s a vicious cycle. The interviewee feels less powerful and changes their body language accordingly, but their body language then reinforces this powerlessness.
How many promising candidates have been rejected merely because they are more sensitive this power imbalance? Companies may lose out on valuable personnel merely because they play out this script and unwittingly prevent the candidates from showcasing their talents. That is not to say that the ability to handle power imbalance isn’t important in a job, but how important it is varies by job and it certainly isn’t the only skill people need. Most jobs are not nearly as confrontational as job interviews (admittedly some are). People may function perfectly naturally and confidently in a setting where they are not being asked a barrage of questions aimed at judging their competence.
The message then, as I see it, is two-fold. (1) Job candidates need to be aware of this imbalance and how their body language can affect it. You have to prepare not only what you’re going to say, but how. And it seems to help to prepare your body as well. (2) Interviewers need to be aware of the affect they have on job candidates. It might give a you a bit of a power-high to be the one asking the questions, but perhaps you should downplay your power, including your body language, and do as much as you can to let your job candidate feel powerful and allow them to showcase their true selves.