They’ve barely taken their seat, but it’s obvious that your interviewee is nervous. You give her a reassuring smile and nod affirmatively at each of her answers, hoping to put her at ease. Unfortunately, it turns out that positive feedback does a socially anxious interviewee no favours. In fact, it would be better to turn that smile upside-down.
We know this from a new study from North Illinois University where a “careers counsellor” (actually a research assistant) conducted practice interviews while moderating his or her tone of voice, posture and facial expression to provide either positive, negative, or no feedback to the interviewee. The sessions were recorded to allow later evaluation of interview performance and behaviours, and each of the 85 student participants initially completed a questionnaire to rate their social anxiety.
Under positive and neutral feedback, the more relaxed participants gave better interviews than their anxious counterparts, making more impact and looking more hireable. But under negative feedback this pattern reversed, and the anxious were the stronger performers. This wasn’t simply due to the relaxed participants collapsing under the baleful eye of the negative interviewer; the socially anxious actually benefited from the negative feedback, giving better interviews under that condition than any other.
Drilling into the specific behaviours shown by the socially anxious participants, Christopher Budnick‘s team observed that positive and neutral feedback was associated with an upswing in anxiety displays – fidgeting, low eye-contact, sparse responses – and fewer assertive tactics such as positioning themselves as being like the interviewer. The anxious individuals actually made a better impression when facing off against an interviewer who seemed to have a low opinion of them.
This paradoxical effect can be explained by our need to have a consistent self-image. Consider a relaxed person given reassuring cues: their self-image is unchallenged, so they can place their attention on external concerns, including making a good impression. By contrast, a socially anxious person typically has a negative self-image, meaning positive feedback is jarring and invites self-consciousness, distracting them from effective interpersonal engagement and social behaviours.
Budnick’s team tested this explanation by presenting participants with open-ended questions and counting their use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, myself, and mine) in response, which was taken as a sign of increased self-focus. The anxious interviewees relied on more of these under positive (vs. negative) feedback, with a reversed pattern in relaxed participants. A subsequent analysis confirmed that this higher self-focus was part of the route by which incongruent feedback led to worse performance.
The researchers conclude with a recommendation: “high anxiety interviewees might not benefit fully from traditional interview training”; instead they could try learning techniques that “reduce the perceived disconnect between positive feedback and self-views.” If you have a tendency to be anxious, you could prepare by thinking through all the reasons why someone might express an emotion without it necessarily being about you, and even put this into practice by asking a cheery friend to put you through a mock interview.
Budnick CJ, Kowal M, & Santuzzi AM (2014). Social anxiety and the ironic effects of positive interviewer feedback. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 1-17.