We all know how important it is to do well in a job interview because it’s our only opportunity to make a first impression. But why does the first impression carry so much more weight than subsequent impressions? And exactly what constitutes a “good” first impression?
In order to answer those questions, I turned to research in the field of social psychology. It’s long been established that individuals develop instant impressions of strangers based on how they gesture and move their bodies, what they say and how they say it, which are all examples of expressive behavior. It’s suggested that this ability benefited humans in ancient times as a way of quickly discerning friend from foe.
What’s even more interesting is that research has shown that those first impressions tend to be fairly accurate and consistent with an individual’s own self-rating of their character and personality.
Somehow our expressive behavior, even in a very brief context, is sharing a lot about who we are.
So how does this play out during the interview process? Usually, the interview has two distinct phases, the structured question phase about skills and competencies and the rapport-building phase with small-talk designed to put the candidate at ease. Even though the small-talk may seem meaningless, the interviewer is subconsciously also gauging your competence based on how similar you are to them in your appearance and mannerisms.
In a recent study, the researchers found that candidates who made better first impressions (meaning they were more similar to and consistent with the interviewer in their style and behavior), were rated higher by the interviewer and received more offers.
What does it mean to be more similar to and consistent with an interviewer? It means your style of dress, your language and key phrases and your general demeanor need to reflect that of the organizational culture and that of the interviewer(s) specifically.
This information comes from your pre-interview research into the company and the hiring manager. Is the company culture very fresh and innovative or is it more conservative and a little more formal? Is the hiring manager more technical or more creative? Let all the information you have gathered inform how you proceed in the interview, even in the small-talk.
The reality is that you’re being evaluated for competence even in the casual chat during the interview because the hiring manager’s brain is designed to do that unconsciously. A “good” first impression is when your expressive behavior comes across as a good fit with the hiring manager because of your similar demeanor and style. The first impression is not the time to stand out but rather fit in.
Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin Slices of Expressive Behavior as Predictors of Interpersonal Consequences: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2), 256-74. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.111.2.256
Barrick, M. R., Swider, B. W., & Stewart, G. L. (2010). Initial Evaluations in the Interview: Relationships with Subsequent Interviewer Evaluations and Employment Offers. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1163-1172.