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Friday, August 6, 2010

what's behind your nervousness in interviews?

I have a question for you guys. When your nerves get the better of you in an interview, what exactly is it that's causing your anxiety?  I'm not talking about mild nerves, but rather the type of nerves that are severe enough that they impact your performance and/or make the interview horribly unpleasant for you. When this happens, what specifically is going on in your head?

Here are some options to choose from, but it may be something else entirely:
  • It sucks to feel like someone is scrutinizing and judging you, particularly when your potential livelihood is on the line.
  • You're worried about your ability to answer questions well.
  • Unexpected questions make you panic.
  • Having flubbed interviews in the past, you've started to expect you'll flub them all. 
  • You're not even really sure you are qualified for the job, and you're worried that's showing.
  • You need a job so badly that that fact alone is causing you to freak out.
  • Something else?
I'd love to get your feedback on this in the comments. I'm thinking of working on something that possibly could help, but it all hinges on what's actually in your head when this happens.

42 comments:

Revanche said...

A) I'm not mentally quick on the draw a lot of the time, being nervous makes it that much harder and knowing the nervousness will get in my way adds special anxiety.

B) It's one of the times when someone you don't know can judge you based on their personal prejudices and have it affect you significantly.

C) General nerves about having to meet someone in a relatively formal way and coming off like Not an Idiot.

Humane Resource said...

Hi Alison,

When I get really nervous in an interview to the point that I muddle my words it's usually one of two things;

1. I'm in HR and I think about what I would be thinking if a candidate said what I'm saying.

2. I really really want the job. The interviews that I have crashed and burned the worst in are often for the companies or the roles I really want to work in. I get myself so worked up and excited about the opportunity that I lose the ability to think.

The less invested I am in a role the better I seem to interview (from my point of view anyway).

Nick said...

I never feel like I am qualified when talking to the interviewer even though I know I am.

I have been unemployed for 10 months now and was let go from my last job. I know the question of "why did you leave company X" is coming up and never know how to answer it without sounding like I failed in my last position.

James said...

To be totally honest, I think it all comes down to confidence. If you go in there and be yourself completely, and can care less about what they think because at the end of the day, you are going to be you. And they will either like you or not like you.

Anonymous said...

I think for me, it tends to be a combination of the above, but mostly "You need a job so badly that that fact alone is causing you to freak out."

Claudia said...

For me, it's a combination of meeting new people in a formal setting; being judged on every move I make, what I look like and everything I say; feeling worthless and not qualified (even though I know that's wrong); and then being nervous & knowing that's affecting my answers makes me more nervous.

TheLabRat said...

# You need a job so badly that that fact alone is causing you to freak out.
# Something else?

Mental illness (anxiety/depression) without health insurance is awesome. I'm inherently nervous around people, the more of them the more I babble. I can usually cover for it but not always.

Also, there are certain personality types that I inherently react with nerves to. I've stopped caring about botching these interviews; these types are people I don't want to work for.

Anonymous said...

I agree with LabRat. I'm unemployed, without insurance and I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder . I can't afford the meds to treat it, and it is absolutely killing me in interviews.

Alison; I have a question for you. Should I disclose this information in an interview? When I'm on the correct levels of the medication (I have the scripts waiting!) I function excellently. Otherwise, I'm like (as my mom says) a nervous shi-tzu.

Anna B. said...

The biggest reason I feel nervous is that I feel a lot of pressure to make the interviewers understand what my work experience has been and what my skills are. I have a rather unique combination of skills that overlap perfectly for the types of jobs that I apply for -- but that most people don't have. You'd think this would make interviewing a breeze, but it actually seems to work against me.

Say, for example, I'm a talented singer and an experienced plumber, and I'm applying for positions as a singing plumber. I've been in many interviews with people who imply -- or flat-out say -- "I don't believe one person can be good at plumbing AND singing". Maybe it's because they themselves are only good at singing, and they think plumbing is too hard for a singer to be able to understand it.

Plus, "good singing" is a soft skill and depends a lot on opinion, while "good plumbing" is much more measurable. I can demonstrate my plumbing ability, but when it comes to singing, I feel like I'm sitting there saying "no really, I promise I'm a good singer!" without a way to prove it.

To stretch my metaphor a little further, I even had an interview a few years ago with an upper manager who said, "if I were to hire you, I'd send you to singing lessons", despite the fact that I have a college degree in singing and I'd been singing professionally for over five years.

I feel like I'm fighting against the individual prejudices -- and maybe even insecurities -- of the people who interview me. I'm frustrated with them because I feel they aren't listening to me, and I'm frustrated with myself because I feel like I must not be communicating as well as I want to be. All of that frustration builds up and makes me nervous.

Anonymous said...

1) You only get one shot to make a good impression
2) You are in the spot light
3) Feels like public speaking
4) Depending on the interviewer can feel like an oral exam.
The only thing that seems to reduce the normalness of nervous behavior is being as prepared as possible, & arriving 10 mins early to relax the brain.

Anonymous said...

When I first started interviewing, I had nerves, but not enough to really scare me. However, as each rejection came, it made me more nervous that I was doing something wrong, and I didn't know what. I did really well in school and got super frustrated when I didn't understand something. Now I fear what I don't understand.

Now I think people are more critical of me. And it's more than how I present myself with my answers. My resume has been negatively criticized in an interview, and no matter how I explained what was "negative," the interviewer kept his opinion forefront. I have been judged, to my face in an interview, that I don't even look my age; many give me about 8 years younger than what I am which would put me back in my teens.

People have told me that my resume was fine, that the interviewer had someone else in mind. Also, people tell me it's a blessing to look younger and eventually people will see past it. However, these are now in my mind, and I fear the next person will have the same ideas.

And lastly, in general, it takes me time to warm up to people. If I first meet you, I'm more reserved because I'm watching how you are. Once I feel I know how to act - like if you're reserved or if you're more outgoing - then I adjust and will feel more comfortable. So I'm nervous when I don't know the person or how they'll be in the interview.

AAM - any help you have will be greatly appreciated!

AthenaMarie said...

For me, I get really nervous because I talk very quickly and sometimes, my words slur together and the interviewer has a hard time understanding me. Since I know this is a problem, I am constantly thinking, "don't talk too fast. Don't talk too fast. Don't talk too fast." Then it takes a little longer for me to come with an answer to a question since my brain is already focused on "don't talk too fast."

Amy said...

I'm much worse in a phone interview than in person. I guess it's that I can't read a reaction over the phone. I tend to keep talking without taking a breath, and when I finally do, I feel like they can hear me breathing. I also tend to pace when I'm in a phone interview, so I'm sure that doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it's not helpful to you, but can I say all of the above?

For me it is mostly a question of being qualified. I am not nervous if I know I am qualified for the job. But if I'm unsure, instead of looking at it like a conversation where the manager and I both determine it's a good fit, I start acting like the world will come crashing down if one person thinks I am unqualified for one job.

fposte said...

I think for a lot of people it's not a specific, conscious reason; it's nervous-making because situations that matter a lot and where the ultimate control is up to somebody else just are, but not because you're thinking about that, any more than you're thinking "that oven rack is hot and I'm uncomfortable; perhaps I should remove my hand from it?"

TheLabRat said...

Anna B, I'm going to borrow the holy bejeebus out of that metaphor. Informative and hilarious; thanks!

Charles said...

I used to get nervous and the reason is one that has been mentioned by several people here already:

BEING JUDGED!

But, I would like to add that is being "unfairly" judged. By that I mean that every little thing that you do or say is, to paraphrase a cliche, a molehill made into a mountain. So many times the hiring folks will take one small comment/action and twist it around as if they are some sort of psychologists. All of this really shows their own personal bias/ignorance rather then showing what brilliant "people readers" that they think they are.

Nowadays, having adopted the attitude of "it's them not me" I think that I tend to come across in interviews as "I don't care" which, to say the least, is probably worse than showing nervousness.

Jen said...

I get embarrassed and flushed very easily, so I'm always afraid that I'm going to turn bright red during an interview. Just thinking about it sometimes makes me flush, and then I panic because I probably look like a tomato, and that completely ruins my concentration.

On a positive note, I've found that cutting back on caffeine and taking a vitamin B complex helps me feel less jittery and more focused. A good night's sleep and a balanced breakfast don't hurt, either!

Becky said...

I'm afraid that the interviewer will think I'm stupid, even though I'm not. I don't think I'm a genius, but I'm not dumb. And yet, that is my biggest fear.

I agree with fposte though. I don't think that it's a conscious thing for most people while they are in the interview. Otherwise it would probably be easier to deal with it in advance.

Randi said...

Even though I conducted several interviews a week at my last job, I just had an interview where I was extremely nervous.

Luckily, I got the job. But I would say there are several reasons I was so nervous. First, I really wanted the job. It would be the first real/career job I had and I knew that my lack of real experience would mean less interviews. I couldn't afford to mess it up.

Second, I was aware of some of the questions that could be asked, but since I have no direct experience, I felt my answers were not good enough, which just caused be to be even more nervous.

And, I know that I interview horribly, so maybe I just walk in with that mindset.

And finally, I am an awkward conversationist. I never really know what to say without thinking about it first. And I feel that I am taking too long to talk so I answer before I'm ready which means that answers aren't the best.

Randi said...

It also didn't help that at my interview, I could see one of the interview's paper that graded my answer, and he constantly gave me low marks. So that fueled my nervousness.

Overworked & Underemployed said...

The huge power disparity in a job interview causes me a lot of anxiety. And needing a job is certainly anxiety inducing.

Anonymous said...

Several things:

A) I tend to get nervous when meeting new people. I am not really a "people person." On the job I can make myself do it enough to where I can succeed, but it's difficult in the interview setting.

B) I've been more nervous for my last few interviews due the format of the interviews. They aren't interviews so much as they are oral examinations where you don't have more than a vague indication as to what they might ask [most of the questions are about technical issues, very few of them are traditional interview questions.]

The few interviews I've had that were more traditional and were structured more like a conversation, I didn't get very nervous at all.

C) I am not really an ideal match for the positions I interview for due to lack of experience. I think when you have to explain something that might be considered negative, that's difficult and causes me to be nervous. I was also let go due to performance at my last position, although surprisingly, that has not come up much. Pretty much every job I interview for I'm having to convince them to take a chance on an entry-level person.

D) I generally just don't think well on my feet in these situations. I sound foolish even when explaining concepts I know well.

E) Just overall desperation. I've been unemployed 13 months now. My wife got a good job back in the spring and I've reached the point where I've considered a separation of a few years just so I can find some kind of work. The need to find a job here weighs on me every time I interview.

Anonymous said...

For me, I think it's about chemistry with the interviewer. I could immediately sense if the interview likes me, and i get all relaxed and confidence. If the interviewer doesn't like me to start with, I feel it's hard to make that connection no matter what I say or not say.
The person who hired me for my current job, didn't like any other candidates and decided that she really liked me when she met me, and I got hired. Mind you, this is not even a job that I want to stay long term, nor is she a manager I like to work for. But bottomline is, it's that few seconds upon meeting the decision maker that kinda seal the deal.

Interviews are always misleading said...

1.) I over-think it. I'm in HR so I am overly critical of everything that might / could / will be interpreted from what I say...and then again what I don't say, body language...etc You get my point

2.) I am a very solid worker with great leadership skills - and all my employers will tell you this.

However, I absolutely cannot make friends with the idea that someone would give me 30 minutes to prove that I am worthy...

If I had my choice, I'd take a 3 month unpaid probationary period instead of an interview - that way I can actually show how much I'm worth and you (employer) can make your informed decision about hiring me or no

Ask a Manager said...

This is all really great food for thought. Thank you!

A few specific thoughts before I go away and mull more generally:

Humane Resource - I hear a ton of people say that, about how the less invested they are, the better they do. I the key is right in there, but so hard to pull off.

Nick - How about something like "my boss and I both came to realize that the job had grown in a direction that really required someone with significant experience in (or skills in ) ___, whereas my expertise is more in the direction of ___"?

Anonymous at 5:30 AM - I think there's an argument to be made for finding a nonchalant way to mention at the start, "Hey, I want to just come out and tell you that I tend to get anxious in interview situations, and I hope you'll look past it because I think I'd be fantastic at this job." Also, have you looked into programs that help people get medication without insurance? I think some of the big drug companies sponsor some things like that.

Anna B. - Are you willing to tell us what the real soft skill is (what singing is a stand-in for)? I might be able to suggest a way of handling it. (Or not -- depends on what it is.)

AthenaMarie -- I tend to talk fast too. I used to have to do radio interviews, where you really can't talk fast, and the trick I used was to pretend I was talking to a non-native speaker who was still learning the language, which made me naturally slow down.

Amy - Your solution is easier, I think. You've got to practice rehearsing answers to common interview questions out loud, and practice stopping when you're done with the answer (no more than 1-2 minutes of speaking), no matter how uncomfortable you feel just being silent. I promise you, they'll start talking and fill the silence! You just need to practice doing it on your own so it feels more natural.

Randi - That is completely outrageous.

Anonymous said...

It's a little of all of the above for me. What I hate the most are hardcore technical interviews. Most of the ones I've had were awful - the quality of the questions and the skill level of the interviewer who had to interpret my answers. Many of them are nothing but trick questions or things that happened to them under very unusual circumstances. Technical skills are very subjective IMHO. If I never had to perform a specific task I wouldn't know the answer without looking it up. Well, guess what? My team and I need to look stuff up every day and as long as we understand the core functions we have never have an issue. The best technical interviews are the ones where your potential new team skims your resume and asks questions about how you used specific applications or technology. I can talk to someone about a product I know very well and instantly tell if they're full of crap.

And @Nick regarding the dread of the "why did you leave" question: I was fired (well, asked to resign but it comes across almost the same in an interview) from a previous job and it took me about 5 months to find something else. I stammered and stuttered every time that question came up because I was trying to "spin it". When I finally made peace with myself that I screwed up, payed the price for it and learned a bunch of lessons, I started doing better. When I confidently answered the question the interviewer quickly moved on the next question. Eventually, I had 3 offers at the same time.

Anna B. said...

Alison,

I'm a technical writer, so my "soft skill" is my writing ability, and my "hard skill" is my knowledge of the software development world (although I hold two bachelor degrees, one in each area).

I've done work as a technical writer and as what you might call a corporate communications writer -- working on things like reports, test results, white papers, etc. I love computers and I get excited about technology, which I think are good things! I've worked with quite a few technical writers who actually aren't very interested in technology at all, and I find that they just don't do as well as those of us who are really interested in the subject matter as well as the work.

I enjoy technical writing, which is what I'm doing now, but I'd really love to get back into corporate communications for a technology company. That's where I run into trouble: I keep interviewing with writers who dismiss their subject matter experts as "nerds" and their content as "boring" and/or "not glamorous". This is why I feel like I may be running into a lot of prejudices that exist between the writing world and the technology world; I hear things like "why do you know about that geeky stuff?" and "you can't write marketing documents like you do technical documents" (ignoring the many marketing documents in my portfolio.

Of course, this is all extra frustrating and nerve-wrecking for me because I'm supposed to be a communications professional, yet I keep going through these "missed connection" types of interviews! I'm far from perfect but I know that I bring a lot of value, but I keep feeling like I'm on the defensive, instead of having the kind of discussion that I want to have about my skills.

Rebecca said...

- You're not even really sure you are qualified for the job, and you're worried that's showing. Sometimes it's my fault and sometimes it's the interviewer or company's fault.

- You need a job so badly that that fact alone is causing you to freak out. When you know that the next 30-60 minutes might make the difference between getting your life back or staying in hell for who knows how much longer, it's hard to be calm and rational.

- As Humane Resources said, wanting the job so badly you can't think straight. I had an interview for my dream job at a dream company a few years ago and completely blew it, due solely to nerves. I'm STILL pissed off at myself for screwing it up because I'll never get that chance again. (Life is rubbing it in right now, too -- the company's had skyrocketing sales the past couple years and is growing explosively.)

Anonymous said...

I haven't been nervous in job interviews for so long it took a while for me to imagine why.

Originally, I guess it was the intimidation factor: this person has the power to offer me a job. But it was also the stress of being stuck into an artificial situation, until I realized that it didn't need to be an awkward social situation, it could be a regular business meeting. After that, no problems.

Ask a Manager said...

Anna, my thought would be to address it head-on -- make that whole concept your brand. In other words, if they think a tech person with good writing skills is a unicorn, announce up front (in your cover letter) that you're that unicorn. Talk about how they generally don't go together but you're the oddity/freak!/whatever who combines them. I would love that approach in a cover letter.

Shawn said...

This might be a surprise to some of you, but I've worked with hiring managers who were just as nervous as you all to interview for their open position. Your interviewer might be more nervous than you are! Seriously. Make them feel comfortable and you've won half the battle.

TheLabRat said...

SO now it's a singing Unicorn plumber. This is the best analogy ever.

AAM, one I didn't mention that I really don't know what to do with and is along the lines of my lacking in insurance. This time it's dental. My teeth are, due to some horrid genetics, spontaneously rotting out of my head. It looks bad. I mean really bad. No, there are no programs I can take advantage of. I haven't had dental insurance in 15 years. I have been applying for both office work (admin asst and reception) and food service. In both cases, my smile AND my lack of smiling works against me.

SO yeah, that makes me nervous. It's gotten to where I'm consciously aware of how many chompers I'm showing at all times.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am not a quick thinker so I tend to stumble on my responses, and knowing this makes me that much more nervous, especially when I get a question I didn't practice or anticipated was coming.

What causes the most nervousness is in the back of my mind I'm constantly wondering if I'm saying the right things, should I say more, should I say less, what can I say that will impress the interviewer, am I forgetting anything, and what if other applicants have better responses than me. I think a lot of it is about having confidence or at least looking like you have confidence.

Anonymous said...

I get nervous at interviews for the same reason that I get nervous on first dates. Because I'm trying to impress someone. It's just the way emotions work, it's not a specific reason, for me.

Ask a Manager said...

LabRat, did you see this post? Might be relevant --

http://askamanager.blogspot.com/2010/07/is-my-dental-problem-scaring-off.html

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh, where to start? I'm nervous that my interview will not reflect my experience and abilities. It does not come naturally for me to promote myself so I tend to reign in and then have to play catch up. My suit was purchased at a previous weight and I don't have the money to get a new one so I am worried about how I look, whether I'm going to pop a button!

Anonymous said...

1. I think depending on the circumstance, I am usually nervous when meeting new people. It usually takes me a little while to open up/feel comfortable around people I am just meeting for the first time, especially networking-types of situations. I am trying to work on that though!

2. The fact that if I somehow mess up during the interview, I will not get the job. I guess I am sabotaging myself.

3. I get uncomfortable when I'm in a room full of people with all eyes on me because I can feel myself getting nervous, which makes me even more nervous.

4. Questions that throw me through a loop!

Anonymous said...

The reason I get nervous during a job interview? Hostile hiring managers who treat the interview process like the Spanish Inquisition, or as if they were cops conducting a ccriminal interrogation. These hiring managers are way too full of themselves, and their cruelly judgmental attitude is disturbing.

Kez said...

I have managed to conquer my nerves by simply going for jobs I actually want!

I used to let my nerves get the better of me because subconsciously I knew I didn't really want a position - just needed the money.

Now that I'm a university graduate, I care a lot more about career direction and my passion for the field I am qualified to work in. I don't have that fear that they'll "see through me" anymore.

In turn my confidence levels are much higher. Lack of confidence was always a huge issue.

Jamie said...

I find it fascinating to see how many other people have the same problem I had - namely doing great on interviews where I didn't really want the job. My nerves increased in direct proportion with how badly I wanted this job.

The most nerve wracking part of the process for me was the HR screening. I'm in IT and when HR would read some technical questions off the card and write down the answers to be evaluated by others later it threw me.

I never knew if I should try to answer in lay terms as to communicate better with HR - I'd be worried about how I was supposed to communicate. Afterward I was never happy with how I presented myself.

danny said...

For me, I get nervous thinking that this is my only chance to make that first impression. Depending upon the situation, it becomes almost a meta-anxiety, in that I become conscious of being nervous, then I focus on my nerves rather than the interview, and a vicious cycle begins.

My impression of myself is that I'm personable and easy to get along with, but that sometimes I (like Revanche) am not as quick to pick up on things as some others may be. Given time, I can usually learn just about anything, but I feel like a job interview is often such an artificial and compressed environment that my true strengths don't come out.

I'd love to get over this, because I feel like it holds me back. I'm hoping to move into a new career and I don't want this to be a stumbling block.