Impression Management in Project Management Interviews

This is the last post in the series about project management interviews and I wanted to take a look at the social psychology aspect of interviewing and recruiting – specifically impression management. Psychology is an obvious science to turn to when you’re interested in the people aspects of business. We know its difficult to recruit people – especially when we know how important the personal characteristics of a worker is in fitting into the role and the organisation. Interviewing can be especially difficult when we know there are other ‘forces’ at work when having that two-way dialogue – there are known interview bias, and impression management is just one of them.

What is impression management?

low-camera-pictofigo-hi-009It stems from 1988 with Gardner & Martinko’s work within social psychology, “behaviours that are used to create and maintain desired images of self“, in other words, people will always attempt to influence the impressions others have of them – either consciously or subconsciously. It’s obvious to see how the interview process would be particularly susceptible to impression management.

There are two main types of impression management – verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal is often seen as the hardest to fake because what we often do non-verbal impressions – our body language for example subconsciously. It’s often also easier to see when the two don’t match up, how many times have you seen and heard a person say they’re happy, when their body language and other non-verbal cues say the exact opposite?

Interestingly studies were conducted in an assessment centre situation and it was found that the assessors were influenced in their opinions about delegates even though the delegates may not have been as active in the participation as others. The assessors were influenced by their ‘positive’ body language, positive affirmations such as nods of the head and so on ((McFarland, Yun, Harold, Viera Jr, & Moore, 2005).

Verbal Impression Management

Verbal impression management tactics falls into two camps – assertive and defensive. We’re less interested in defensive because these are rare in interview situations – well at least I hope they would be – but defensive is all about an individual responding to a threat, whether real or perceived, to their self-image. Assertive on the other hand is all about wanting to reveal or show a more favourable image of oneself.

So assertive self-presentation is all about how we can influence the interviewer in some way. There tends to be two main focuses here – self and other. ‘Self focused’ impression management tactics are used to make the individual look better in some way whilst ‘other focused’ tactics are directed at others, to make them feel better about themselves. The table below shows the two main strategies related to interviews and gives some examples of tactics used specifically within the interview process:

Impression Management Strategy Tactics
A. Ingratiation 1. Self-enhancement
Making the individual more liked and attractive to others An interviewee that is very self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses and tends to self-aggrandize or over exaggerate their accomplishments and skills. It can be seen as a risky strategy because the interviewee might appear to be ‘bragging’ or insincere.
2. Other-enhancement
Positive evaluation of the interviewer – will include flattery, praise and compliments for example, directed at the interviewer and/or the organisation.
3. Opinion conformity
Sharing the same opinion, showing the same behaviour or values of the interviewer. Particularly useful when being interviewed by someone more senior in rank. Research has shown that it is an effective strategy to increase an interviewee’s likeablility to the interviewer.
4. Favour-doing
Works on the principle that people who do ‘nice’ things will generally be viewed as likeable. Likelihood of this being an option in an interview is small but even holding the door open for the interviewer is seen as a favour.
B. Self promotion 1. Performance Claims

Making the individual seem more competent to others

Interviewees that overstate accomplishments and competences to appear more effective than other candidates. Similiar to self-enhancement but where self-enhancement is about getting people to like you, self-promotion is about getting people to respect you. Interviewees could appear conceited.
2. Performance Accounts
Interviewees that overstate their performance, skills or abilities in actual previous examples of their work

The effects of impression management techniques by interviewees can really work both ways. There can be positives and negatives for both the interviewees and the interviewers. Research by Susan T. Fiske in her 2009 book Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology sums that up:

If the interviewer was a high-dominance personality, the interviewer liked the ingratiator and wanted to go afterwards for a coffee with this likeable person, but the high-dominance interviewer did not want to hire that person. The low-dominance interviewers simply wanted to hire the person who was competent. So, interviewees needs to be careful about not just ingratiating in situations that call for self-promotion. One may go out of the interview feeling good about being appreciated as nice, but one will not necessarily get hired. On other hand, behaving like a competent yet cold way could backfire. But competence comes first.

The question remains – do interviewers have formal training in the psychological aspects of interviewing candidates; it has been shown through research that anyone can be susceptible to interview bias. The trick is to be aware of the tactics and how they can be counterbalanced during the interview. The really interesting thing about interview impression tactics is that often they are not done consciously by candidates so could interviewers be missing out on true competent candidates because their ‘first’ impressions may not be truly representative of who they are and what they have to offer.

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