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Research: Harnessing Stress Can Help Candidates and Recruiters

A keynote speaker at this year's Indeed Interactive conference urged attendees to "make stress your friend."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017
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Do you remember your last job interview? Was the experience a pleasant one? If you're like most people, the answers are A: yes, and B: No. After all, regardless of how nicely you're treated during the interview -- a receptionist who greets you warmly by name, interviewers who appear to have fully read your resume, etc. -- the fact is that this is a process that may determine not only your livelihood but also who you'll be spending the majority of your waking hours with (and yes that sounds sad, but it is what it is). So considering all that, it may not be surprising if even the memory of the experience makes your heart beat a little faster and your palms get a bit sweaty.

All of this can be a good thing, said psychologist Kelly McGonigal during her keynote presentation earlier this week at Indeed Interactive in Austin, Tex. The conventional wisdom about stress is that too much of it leads to overeating, high blood pressure and a host of other maladies and behaviors that will ultimately result in a shortened lifespan, said McGonigal, a Stanford University researcher whose 2014 TED Talk titled "How to Make Stress Your Friend" garnered nearly 5 million views. However, stress is and always has been a part of life, she said – it's how we choose to respond to it that determines its effect on our health.

"The advice we typically give to each other during a really stressed-out moment, like before a job interview, is 'Take a deep breath,' " she said to attendees packing the ballroom at the Austin J.W. Marriott. "Yes, most people say that -- and they're wrong. A better piece of advice is, what if instead of trying to suppress the stress, we view it as energy that we can harness?"

McGonigal cited research conducted at the University of Wisconsin that tracked 30,000 Americans over the course of eight years. The researchers found that subjects with a lot of stress had a 43-percent increased risk of dying -- but only if they believed stress was harmful.

"The people who perform best under pressure aren't actually calm, but they view that stress as energy that can actually help them," she said. "Your body and brain have a whole repertoire of stress responses, many of which are helpful and healthy. If you choose to embrace that anxiety, it actually transforms the biology of fear into the biology of courage."

People tend to perform better when they're told prior to a major event that feeling anxious is natural and that it can actually help them -- not just in job interviews, said McGonigal, but in a wide range of activities such as athletic competitions, during tests and even in karaoke contests (something to keep in mind for your next happy hour).

"Not everyone does this naturally, although everyone has the capability to do this," she said. "You can access the biology of resilience in stressful situations."

Researchers at Columbia Business School conducted an experiment in which participants were put through a mock job interview by interviewers who'd been coached to be very cold, give no positive feedback whatsoever to the interviewees  and interrupt them regularly, said McGonigal. One group of interviewees was shown a video prior to the interview that explained the damaging effects that stress can have on health. The other group was shown a video about how stress can be performance-enhancing and can help people emerge from a difficult situation stronger and better-equipped to handle adversity. The participants who saw the positive video experienced higher levels of hormones (oxytocin, in particular) that help us react positively to stressful experiences, she said.

In another experiment focused on job applicants, this one at the University of Michigan, researchers counseled one group of participants to think about how -- if they got the job -- it would allow them to help others or express their values in a way that would contribute to the greater good. Members of this group were much more likely to be rated by people who watched the interviews as confident and competent and as someone they would like to work with than those who hadn’t received the pre-interview counseling.

So, what's the lesson here for recruiters and talent-acquisition leaders?

"Every step of the hiring process can be viewed as contributing to the community, values and mission of the organization,” said McGonigal. “One could view your own role as part of that, of helping to connect people with the organization and the community that it’s part of. And every moment that you choose to view as the next step in bringing this about also helps create a psychologically healthy state for you.”

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