When getting ready for a job search, most prepare by updating their resume, scanning the job boards and considering which accomplishments to share during the interview. If you’re more nuanced, you might also consider who you’ll call to be references and if your navy suit in the back of your closet still fits.
But few, if any, job seekers prepare for the emotional journey of the job search. Psychologists agree this is a very real part of the process, it has a significant impact on your outcome. It’s very easy to sense a candidate’s defeat, frustration, and anxiety in the interview through subtle non-verbal cues, and unfortunately, many interviewers will interpret these as red flags (perhaps you’re hiding something?).
Chances are that’s not the case, but many assumptions go unchecked during the interview (very few hiring managers are adequately trained on this important skill), so you don’t want to leave it up to chance that you’ll be able to completely regulate your emotions during the hiring process. Even excitement can come across as desperation in certain contexts, so if you’ve not yet thought about how you’ll prepare for the emotional side of the hiring process, here’s your chance:
Know the data. In the best of times, a job search is a complete emotional roller coaster of high highs and low lows (even if you’re choosing to make a switch). If you’ve been forced to make a job change for any reason, it’s even more stressful. Layer on top of that an employer-favored job market, and it may seem more prudent to hire a therapist rather than a career coach to help with the journey*.
While the stress is very real, we have some control over keeping it in check, the easiest strategy of which is being ready for the roller coaster. For example, when you know that an average application to interview ratio is about 20%, you’re not terribly disappointed when your phone isn’t ringing off of the hook. Or when you accept that the odds of landing the job when called back for a second interview are about 25% - 50%, you won’t feel crushed when the offer doesn’t pan out. It’s not about being pessimistic, but rather realistic based on job seeker data. On average, 250 applications are received for any advertised job, 4 -6 applicants secure an interview and one is hired. Recognizing the odds allows you to have a more balanced view, which means logic can temper emotions during the search process.
If you get more hits than the average job seeker, fantastic. In fact you can significantly tilt the odds in your favor by engaging your network (see below). But rejection is married to the job search process (just like error is married to trial), so anticipate it, and don’t take it personally.
Check your expectations. Emotional waves are a part of any change process, but we have some control over the level of swing, which is usually influenced by expectations. Expectations drive those waves to be much bigger since they cause you to become emotionally-invested in an outcome (e.g., if you deem a certain role to be “the one” in your mind, but it fizzles out, then you’re crushed).
Approach each conversation with curiosity and interest, but avoid visualizing yourself in the corner office, making the commute or earning the higher paycheck too early in the process because this increases the emotional investment. If you find yourself ruminating about a role, jot down the pros and cons, which can help you to see the opportunity from a more balanced view instead of a glamorized one, which can ultimately mitigate the massive ups and downs.
This can also help you avoid a potentially poor decision. Emotions are very powerful and can override our logic when making choices (anyone who has dated can attest!), so if you invest in an opportunity too early, you may miss (or dismiss) red flags.
Take responsibility (but only for your part). The hiring process is broken. Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) weed out up to 75% of applicants before they even reach human eyes, sometimes based on irrelevant things like how a resume is formatted. That said, if your primary strategy for the job search is applying online, you have some work to do. Networking has been shown to be the top strategy in uncovering new opportunities, and the only strategy to gain access to roles that are never published (which account for many more than you might think). In fact, 53% of candidates referred by a current employee landed the job and that number spiked to 91% when the person referring was at a Director level or above.
Another challenge beyond your control is that hiring managers often aren’t trained to interview and are subject to their own emotional biases when making decisions. Since interviewing and selecting applicants is likely a peripheral duty they engage in a few times a year, most hiring managers don’t get adequate guidance on how to identify their own unconscious bias, why it’s important to ask valid questions that relate to performance measures or how to dig into responses to check assumptions. This means that if you want a fair shot at landing the offer, it’s 100% your responsibility to show up to the interview ready to leave the information on the table that identifies your most relevant qualifications, regardless of the questions you’re asked. Here’s how.
Identify your triggers. And then, neutralize them. If a certain question throws you every time it comes up, this is an area that may need more attention. Developing a succinct, neutral response that is genuine and logical is a great first step. Rehearse it until you notice the feeling drain from the words, but be careful not to sound like a robot since an overly rehearsed response will sound canned and lead to probing follow up questions. Also, don’t forget to address the underlying issue of the trigger. If you’re angry about getting laid off, have a conversation with an objective friend, journal about your feelings or identify silver linings that help you move beyond the pain. Unaddressed emotions have a way of popping into the open at inopportune times, so simply masking them isn’t enough.
If your hot button tends to be the rising anxiety you feel when waiting on a response from the company, develop ways to mitigate this. A helpful strategy is having many balls in the air so that you’re so busy juggling applications, interviews, networking meetings and follow ups that you’re too busy to wait by the phone. Another strategy is clarifying “recruiter speak” so you both have the same interpretation. Hiring moves at a glacial pace, so “we’ll be in touch soon” may mean by the end of the week to you, but by the end of the month to the company. Instead of guessing, at the end of the interview when you’re told “We’ll let you know about next steps”, simply respond, “That’s great - I’m excited about moving forward and will check in at the end of next week if I haven’t heard.”
Practice being objective. Humans love to categorize and make meaning from experiences, often organizing them unconsciously as either good or bad, or some other label. These labels often elicit associated emotions (e.g., good = happy) and our brain continues to apply meaning to support these beliefs (e.g., this is a good job that would make me happy). While these strategies are often helpful in making us more efficient in daily tasks, they can get in the way of objectively viewing a situation. So, do your best to notice these categorizations so you can stop jumping to black and white conclusions, which can lead to emotional investment. Most things in life (including jobs) have many shades of gray. It can lead to deeper curiosity (which can lead to useful data) when you suspend judgment as you learn more about the role, company and your potential new colleagues. And, it’s often the stories we tell ourselves that lead to the emotional responses we experience, so be careful with the narratives you whip up.
Get support. Sometimes we need more assistance than our friends or family, or even a career coach can offer. As a Licensed Psychologist, I both believe in therapy and have participated in it extensively. Humans are complex, the job search is anxiety-inducing, and life rarely tosses us one challenge at a time. If you have additional life issues complicating your job search or have experienced a particularly traumatic transition, you may decide that engaging with a therapist will help you to manage these challenges.
Emotions won’t stand to be ignored, so if you’ve been suppressing them, you may notice they’re seeping out in other ways including physical symptoms (e.g., sleep difficulties, digestive issues or headaches), relationship difficulties (e.g., increased irritability or arguments) or mental struggles (e.g., concentration or memory lapses). Your feelings will wait patiently for you, so while landing a new job is important, it may be prudent to put the search on hold for a short time to allow yourself some needed TLC (*find a licensed professional here).
Embarking on a job search can be exciting. It’s energizing to envision yourself in a new role that taps into your strengths and supports your values. And just like any major change in life, there will be several complex steps on the path before you reach the destination. The more prepared you are for the various twists and turns, the more likely you are to be successful, and maybe even enjoy the journey.