Think about the last time you watched someone give a presentation at work. Without meaning to, you were likely listening not only to the content of the presentation, but also the way in which your coworker presented on the topic. Maybe they seemed to lack confidence, or maybe they seemed well-prepared.
That’s because whenever you see somebody doing something, you are not only watching what they do, you are also trying to understand why they are doing it. Unfortunately, the interpretation of most behaviors is ambiguous. If you’re conducting an interview, you’re trying to determine whether that pause before answering an interview question a sign that the interviewee is thoughtful, nervous, or unprepared. Is that broad smile a signal that the person is friendly, happy, or trying too hard to impress you?
You often don’t notice that ambiguity, because you use a lot of information to help you interpret what other people are doing. If you know somebody well, of course, you just use your previous interactions to help you understand what they are doing now. But when you are meeting someone for the first time, you make quick judgments about the reasons behind their actions. Even though these judgments may be based on less reliable information, you often don’t notice how much interpretation went into understanding what other people are doing.
The good news is, the next time you’re in a high-pressure situation like a job interview, you can use this information to maximize the chances that the interviewer will give the most positive interpretations of your actions possible. How can you do that?
One phenomenon you can use to your advantage is the “halo effect,” which is the observation that if you have an initially positive impression of someone, you will bias your judgments about them more positively than if you have a neutral or even negative initial impression.
What can you do to get that halo?
The halo effect is one of the big reasons why first impressions really matter. The reason you want to dress appropriately for the job interview is that your interviewer is making judgments about you just from the way you present yourself. Standing up straight, making eye contact, and giving a firm handshake all communicate a degree of confidence and preparation (that you may or may not feel). These signals will influence how an interviewer interprets what happens next.
While we’re at first impressions, this is also why you want to plan to show up for that interview early. There are lots of factors out of your control, like traffic. In addition, some corporate offices are confusing or have unexpected security protocols. Being there ahead of schedule contributes to that halo effect. (It also gives you a chance to catch your breath before having to dive into the interview itself.)
In the waiting area before the interview, review any notes you have made about the firm you’re interviewing with. If you know who the interviewer is in advance (which is often the case when you are in a second or third interview for a position), find out as much as you can about them through LinkedIn, media, and the company website. The more that you can display that you understand the organization and its mission, as well as recognizing the importance of the person you’re talking to, the more that will feed back in a positive impression of what you do.
If you can find points of commonality between yourself and the interviewer, that helps, too. We naturally interpret the behaviors of members of our “ingroup” (that is, the people who are part of our team) more charitably than the behaviors of member of “outgroups” (everybody else). Of course, this can be problematic when it comes to hiring for culture fit, but if you’re aware of this phenomenon, you can try to use it to your advantage, by attempting to yourself categorized in the same “group” as the interviewer. Being from the same state, graduating from the same school, or even sharing a common interest can help. Look for signs in a person’s office for ways that you might share characteristics that could lead to that sense of being on the same team.
On that score, you can even turn potential rivalries into a halo. For example, I am a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Our biggest football rival these days is Oklahoma University. Yet, when I meet graduates of OU we can often form a quick bond through good-natured teasing about the rivalry. It works, because good rivals are actually similar along many dimensions, and you can focus on that commonality rather than difference to create a good first impression.
Finally, there may be times when you don’t get the halo. You may discover a stain on your outfit, you may arrive a few minutes late to the interview, or you may find no way to develop a bond with the interviewer. A halo doesn’t guarantee a great interview—and the lack of one doesn’t spell doom. Just forge ahead with your interview with confidence. First impressions matter, but you can overcome a rough start.