Warmth or Competence: What Job Interviews Are Looking For
“Coolly competent, the interviewee enters. Her handshake is firm, her gaze unwavering. Her answers are curt and unvarnished. She’s confident. She can get the job done, no doubt about that. But is she a nice person?”
“Warmly incompetent, the interviewee enters. She smiles nervously, but warms to the interview quickly. She speaks in fits and starts, but always with a big smile. She’s a nice person. But can she get the job done?”
Coolly competent, or warmly incompetent?
According to research done by Amy Cuddy, first impressions are binary. “We look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence)”.
We do this to answer a rather important question: whether or not your new acquaintance is a threat. Threats aren’t so prevalent nowadays. You’re rather less likely to be slain by a marauding tribesman. But our hunter-gatherer brains haven’t caught up. So, when we assess a stranger, we’re looking for danger signs.
Consider the first interviewee. Reading the description, many of you may admire her. She’s certainly got ability. But her lack of warmth triggers the ‘danger’ alarm. The interviewer goes into ‘avoidance’ mode, trying to get away from the threat in front of them. Despite seeing their obvious competence, they begin to find reasons to dislike the interviewee. So, even though the interviewee can do the job well, they don’t get it.
Cuddy advocates the approach of the second interviewee. Being warm and lovable activates the listener’s ‘approach’ mode. They begin to feel kindly towards you and will ignore some of the mistakes you make. You’re more likely to get the job. And if you go on to demonstrate great competence, they will say ‘I knew it all along’.
We think of job interviews as all about demonstrating competence. But they’re not: it’s about demonstrating warmth. That’s why they’re a part of the process: to weed out candidates who might pose a threat to the office environment. But what if you feel that you don’t come across warmly enough?
See Also: 8 Interview Tips For Introverts
The importance of emotion
Here begins the deluge of standard-issue advice. Smile. Make eye contact. Shake their hand with both of yours. Sit with your hands a certain way. Keep your body language open.
The trouble with these pearls of wisdom is they don’t go deep enough. The real way to change from office ‘threat’ to office ‘asset’ is in the way you speak about your experiences.
A quick test. Imagine you’re speaking to someone about your day. If you’re alone, speak out loud. If you’re not, run the conversation through in your head. Talk through what you’ve been up to, what your plans are tonight, and what you’ve got on the docket for tomorrow.
Now consider two possibilities. In the first, you logically went through everything you needed to do. “I’m writing a blog in the morning, then taking the dog out, then going out to dinner in the evening.” It all made sense, and hung together like a list.
In the second, you emphasised the emotive parts of your day. “So I’m struggling at the moment to get a blog finished: you know how it is. Then I’m doing a little walk with Jasper. Oh, and we’re going out to this Persian place. They do really good meze.”
Notice the difference in the two stories. One is rich with detail, full of images that spring to your mind. It’s obvious that the speaker enjoys what they do, and remembers important details from their day. But the other is bland. It has the bare facts, but no details: nothing is important enough to remember.
Let’s test this with an interview question: “Tell us about yourself”.
Here, it’s tempting to start demonstrating competency. You might speak logically about where you went to school, what you did afterwards, and what you did after that. But remember, it’s all about warmth.
You can use the same logical structure, but fill it with detail. What did you enjoy most about school? What did you learn about yourself from where you worked afterwards? What was important, enjoyable, inspiring, or difficult about the experience you had? What did you learn?
It comes down to empathy. The ‘perfect’ job interview isn’t one where you read off your resume. It’s a communion. It’s an easy friendliness and emotional openness that proves two things: that you’re not a threat, and that you might just be something special.
How Do You Show Warmth?
Competency is rather easy to demonstrate. You can reel off years of experience and academic qualifications. Warmth is harder. But there are some steps you can take to put you on the right path.
Reframe Your Experience
Anecdotes can be easily abused in interviews. Remember that time you made a discovery that saved the company? Consider how you might share that story in an interview. You might emphasize how important it was to the company and how much money it saved. Imagine the ideal reaction from your interviewer: ‘How conscientious you are! What an asset you are to that company. They must be terrified to lose you: what will happen now that they can’t leverage your competence?’
Try and find the warmth in your experiences. Tell the story of how you found the discovery. How did you feel when you found it? What dilemma did you face? Who did you tell? How did you feel afterwards? What did you learn? These questions invite the listener to consider your motives, instead of just seeing how great you are. They begin to understand you at a deeper level, and you start to build warmth.
Study Your Habits
It may be your brain that considers what to say, but it’s your body that says it. Sometimes, your body says things you don’t expect. You may feel deeply interested in the subject, but your body may be communicating disinterest. Get someone you trust to assess your speaking habits. Do you speak too quietly? Do you seem bored? Do you seem nervous?
Try to get the simple things right. Make eye contact. Keep your posture upright and your chest relaxed and open. Use energy when you speak to keep your listener interested. And while you’re there, focus on breathing to relax your body and calm your nerves. Tips on diaphragmatic breathing will be invaluable on that front.
The trickiest thing about demonstrating competence is that it pulls you out of the moment. It sends you out of the interview room via memory lane. You begin to lose focus on the people opposite you. And as you lose focus, you begin speaking at them, not to them.
Every time you speak, your listeners are giving you crucial information. From their reactions, they might be indicating that they’ve heard what you’re saying before. They might be showing confusion or interest in something that you only explained minimally. They are guiding you.
Demonstrating competence can feel like reading off a list of things by rote, without regard for what people actually want to hear. Keep your focus on the person you’re speaking to. You’re speaking to them, so explain things that mean more to them. You’ll learn more about them, and they’ll learn more about you. And that’s how you make a connection.