Productively Focusing Job Interview-Performance Anxiety: Transforming "Perfection" into Purpose, Patience and Possibility
Once again, through the wonder of the Internet, I've had a chance to connect with a bright, insightful and articulate individual. Our email interaction began when Barbara, (a fictional name), discovered one of my writings, and we now periodically exchange ideas. Married and in her 40s, Barbara is a government employee, an HR professional for a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city. She's been an in-house consultant to the police department for a number of years. Recently, Barbara has applied for a management position in the department. However, her application is hardly a slam-dunk. Assigned to the police department, as an HR employee she's seen as an outsider, and also viewed as a "worker bee," not necessarily management material. (As a government employee, Barbara has not been a full-time manager, though in her consulting position she has been involved in management activities such as recruiting and performance review.)
In light of the job application uncertainty, Barbara inquired about a phone coaching session with the "Stress Doc." Having had a number of successful coaching experiences, I was delighted to get started. The voice-to-voice encounter only confirmed and further elucidated my impression gleaned from the written word. Clearly, this was a very competent and "likes to get things done" woman who nonetheless had some issues with performance anxiety. (Barbara believes she has a good relationship with the Police Chief. She herself did not mention gender bias as a cause for job interview concern, though, in light of the specific department and the ultimate group interview gauntlet, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility.)
Another factor noted in her self-questioning was a double-edged relationship with a father who had a somewhat perfectionist personality. While Barbara's father was a model for high-achievement striving, perhaps another consequence was the oft-hovering voice, "Prove yourself!" And sometimes, such a voice (or, at least, our internalized version) is never fully satisfied, resulting in a seemingly Greek God-like mythological drama. With strained (mental) muscles and perspiring brow, you quietly curse the huge, precarious boulder, pushing and exhorting it up the mountain…alas, never quite reaching the summit. Unable to defy the forces of gravity (nor the angry gods), the boulder invariably reverses course, and rumbles down to the base. Still, not one to give up easily, once again you screw up the courage for the daunting - if not Sisyphean - task ahead.
Actually, Barbara successfully jumped a number of preliminary hoops in the interview process, which crawled on for several months. Finally, notification arrived that she had earned a ticket to the group interview arena. And again Barbara emailed for another coaching session.
Birds of a Feather - Freeze, Fly High and Finally Learn to Focus
Barbara quickly revealed a mature and rational side: "No matter what happens with the interview, I'm glad I went through the process." She learned much from the experience, including strengths and vulnerabilities of key decision-makers in the department, and articulated heretofore insufficiently recognized facets and talents. She felt more visible. Still, the odds were not necessarily in her favor; Barbara believed there typically is a preference for an "outside" candidate. This reminded me of the old saw about a "consultant": "Someone who's an expert from somewhere else."
At the same time, angst was apparent with the plan for her husband to videotape an interview rehearsal. Something in my gut and memory bank said this was overkill. I agreed with the idea of practice trials and feedback from her husband. My concern about the videotape was having Barbara become so self-conscious about her appearance, gestures and other nonverbals, so caught up in a memorized script, that her quite evident knowledge and experience, her personal-professional stories, would not naturally flow.
To make sure I wasn't simply projecting, I shared with Barbara my "stage fright" experience taping my first health segment for Cox Cable, New Orleans in the '80s. Totally self-preoccupied, I spoke in thirty second bursts and then my brain would freeze. This scenario was repeated several times before I mercifully completed the segment. Just as I was ready to flee the scene, one of the cameramen suggested we review the tape. He cut off my face-saving protest with, "Don't worry, we'll be able to use this for our blooper special."
"Thanks, pal." Actually, through the magic of TV editing the final product was only half bad. (As we left the production truck, I'll never forget the producer's closing words: "I don't expect perfection…just improvement each week." Along with a silent sigh of relief, she also got my attention.) And my health segment continued for two seasons. Still, I didn't want Barbara to unnecessarily put herself in such a self-conscious space.
Becoming a Wise, Not Just a Wily Coyote
Another performance stress association came to mind: this time, helping a trial attorney harness his anxiety when presenting before a jury. While still winning many of his court cases, he was becoming increasingly self-conscious and self-doubting. (He too had a perfectionist father, though his could be rather critical.) I recalled how this attorney (let's call him John), would try to hide his angst with a bold opening argument. This approach proved a dysfunctional ploy; within a minute, being an "impostor" was the overriding self-perception. The image I shared was of the cartoon characters Roadrunner and Wily Coyote. The Coyote is chasing Roadrunner to the edge of a cliff. The roadrunner leaps off and the "Not So Wily One" does the same. And for a few seconds, Old Wily is pumping furiously with bravado, still expecting to capture his nemesis when, suddenly, he looks down. Now, big trouble panic races across the Coyote's face…as he crashes down to earth.
I had to help this attorney learn to start with more moderate and realistic expectations, to be more genuine, that is, to help him understand that some performance anxiety is actually necessary for productive focus and heightened performance. Revealing some start-up anxiety is not unnatural, unmanly or self-defeating. Even Olympic ice skaters don't lead with a triple axel. One warms-up with easier moves and then "slowly but surely" builds momentum.
I recalled how John said to me, with too much intensity in his voice, "Mark if I can just do what we've discussed, I know I'll do well." I immediately confronted John's rigid and perfectionist tone, and reaffirmed that I just wanted him to gradually, to more gently apply some of the tools and techniques. He didn't have to hammer out mastery all at once. And, in fact, John eventually reported doing much better in the courtroom. His exact words: "If I don't get anything else out of this therapy, it will have been worth it!"
Laughing at the "Birds of Worry"
In a follow-up email, Barbara indicated that the Roadrunner story and an old Chinese aphorism, also shared on the phone, had been particularly helpful. The aphorism goes as follows: "That the birds of worry fly above your head, this you cannot help. That they build nests in your hair, this you can do something about!" (I recall the pithy saying evoking hearty laughter. Perhaps Barbara was already anticipating the sage observation of psychiatrist, Ernst Kris: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. And as the Stress Doc inverted: What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!)
Apparently, Barbara's (nest-free) interview performance reflected her talents and experience, along with the meaningful practice and emotional integration. Perhaps she was also feedback-fortified with a quick boost of focus and confidence. While waiting for the final verdict, she had already received some informal positive feedback from members of the interview committee. (I'll keep you posted on her job search journey.)
Hopefully, this article will help you get a better handle on anxiety and on applying tools for enhancing self-perception and presentation no matter the performance arena. Feel free to email or call if you'd like more info on a voice-to-voice/coaching perspective. Best wishes and good adventures for the New Year. And, of course…Practice Safe Stress!
Great Post! - Janet Singer - Jan 9th 2012
Thanks for this post! I find your writing informative as well as enjoyable. As an advocate for OCD awareness, the more I can learn about stress and anxiety, the beter!