By Brian A. Crawford
You have the professional and technical experience to handle the demands of the job and possess an easygoing but in-control demeanor that lends itself to a positive and progressive leadership style needed for today’s fire chiefs. Now, the only thing standing between you and the promotion is the interview. As you approach the elevator, you suddenly realize you can feel your heartbeat pulsating in your ears. You reach the floor of the city manager’s office and approach the receptionist’s desk when you begin having a little trouble catching your breath. Are these just nervous jitters, or are they the beginning of a phenomenon that can be a roadblock to success known as interview anxiety?
For most people, the interview portion of the selection process can be the most difficult and intimidating; therefore, some nervousness is to be expected. Most will settle into a comfortable temperament soon after the interview begins. However, for those suffering from interview anxiety, this step in the assessment process for promotion/appointment can be downright torture.1
The rest of the interview experience goes like this: You walk into the interview, and three smartly dressed city officials stand and introduce themselves. One by one, they say their names but you only hear, “Wa-WaWaWa,” reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s teacher. A black outline starts to encircle your vision, and white spots start randomly appearing like flashbulbs across the room.
By now, your heart is pounding so hard you feel that if you blink you’ll pass out. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it is over and you are shaking hands and walking out of the room. Now, with each step and each tick of the clock, you try and remember anything about what just happened but, like a dream, the experience becomes more unclear with each passing minute. The phone call that will not be coming is a foregone conclusion.
There are a number of reasons for interview anxiety. The scientific explanation is the physiological changes that occur in the body as a result of a psychological response during or prior to high-stress events. In other words, when we think of or are engaged in an event that causes us to be physically or mentally threatened, our bodies perceive a threat and react with a built-in response mechanism called the sympathetic nervous system.2 This system releases chemicals into the body to stimulate awareness and physical ability in response to the body’s need to take action against these threats. Theses chemicals, primarily adrenalin, cause many drastic bodily responses, including the following:
- Increased heart rate and increased oxygen delivery to the body.
- Widening of the lungs and bronchial tubes to meet the demand for more oxygen.
- Narrowing of arteries, allowing increased blood flow to primary organs such as the brain.
- Increased muscle tension.
- Dilated pupils.
- Reduction in the motility in the intestine, temporarily ceasing digestion.3
All this occurs as a result of the body’s efforts to meet the perceived challenge and to physically fight or run away from danger. This is where the layman’s term for the sympathetic nervous system, “fight or flight,” is derived. These same principles and our body’s responses are repeated for any high-stress event that is perceived as threatening. It seems unimaginable that an interview can cause such an extreme physical response. But for interview anxiety sufferers, their bodies see no difference between a formal conversation about a job opportunity and being held at gunpoint.
The sympathetic nervous system is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the command center for the body’s involuntary functions such as breathing, digestion, and heartbeat. These are autonomous actions and function independently without outside influence.4 In the case of interview anxiety, a person will develop signs and symptoms at just the thought of being interviewed. Typically, by the time of the actual interview, he can be physically near catastrophe.
Symptoms of interview anxiety are similar to those produced by any stressful situation, only magnified. The anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways and can be accompanied by at least four of the following symptoms:
- Easily upset and overly emotional.
- Increased heart (pulse) rate.
- Increased respiratory rate/difficulty breathing.
- Generalized sweating, cool/clammy hands.
- Blurred and narrowing vision.
- Fear of losing control.
- Increased gastrointestinal disturbances.
- Syncope (passing out); feeling dizzy, faint.
- Dryness of the mouth (cottonmouth).5
To avoid any confusion between anxiety symptoms and those with potential for more serious medical conditions, individuals experiencing these signs and symptoms should consult with their physician if conditions persist.6
As mentioned earlier, some anxiety prior to and during an interview is expected and can actually produce positive results, as it stimulates the brain and body to perform at optimum levels. However, in moderate to severe cases, this same situation can manifest itself in a form of social anxiety: a condition affecting more than 15 million Americans, where a person is fearful of social situations that involve interaction with other people. (1) Among people suffering from this condition, there is a predominant fear of being judged and evaluated by other people. The interview anxiety sufferer takes the normal evaluation of an individual’s knowledge, skill, and ability for competency of a position to an unhealthy level and perceives the interviewer as personally criticizing him.
In what can be incredibly frustrating for fire officers who possess the ability to do the job, interview anxiety can cause them to become discouraged and give up completely on career advancement beyond a certain level. I recently spoke with an assistant chief of a metropolitan fire department who possesses a wealth of knowledge and experience. During our conversation, he mentioned that he had recently applied for two fire chief positions but could not get past the interview segment of the selection process. As I asked more detailed questions, the assistant chief said that he participated in one interview and it went so badly he cancelled the other. When pressed further about the experience, he disclosed that he nearly passed out prior to the interview and felt as if he were going to have a heart attack before he could get out of the office at its conclusion.
Outside of the interview, the assistant chief had never experienced this level of anxiety before and could not understand why it happened during this circumstance and not others. In these situations, the candidate may view the interviewer(s) as being in a superior position. (1) There can also be an overwhelming desire to succeed “at any cost” coupled with a simultaneous fear that the interviewer(s) will see past the image the interviewee is trying so hard to pro-ject and subsequently view the “real person.”
In Going for the Gold: Pursuing and Assuming the Job of Fire Chief, Ronnie Coleman says, “It appears that those who seek fire chiefs through the testing process look for perfection. All you have to do is read the job descriptions to discover they are looking for people who are progressive, innovative, creative, and charismatic. As you read some of the job flyers, you almost feel compelled to add, ‘can leap tall buildings in a single bound and stop a speeding locomotive.’ “7 In what was meant as sarcasm, this “super firefighter” mentality is what sometimes precipitates interview anxiety and paralyzes some candidates, keeping them from delivering their best during the process. Even those with outstanding fire service credentials and administrative experience can suffer severe anxiety if overwhelmed by the perceived level of expectation of the interview.
The good news about interview anxiety is that it is preventable. Several psychology-based methods are available.
Therapeutic cognitive-therapy modalities are the most successful methods of eliminating or minimizing all types of anxiety and are designed to teach the individual to calm himself prior to the interview and to remain in control throughout the process. This course of action involves cognitive reconstruction, wherein a strategy is employed to reduce anxiety by correcting the individual’s overestimation of the threat and underestimation of his ability to handle it. The individual learns to perceive the actual danger and the ability to cope with the situation more accurately. The cognitive reconstruction method focuses on reducing anxiety by doing the following:
1. Identifying the erroneous perception of threats that lead to the anxiety. Once a person becomes aware of what is fueling the anxiety, he is in a position to evaluate the validity and ultimately challenge it. In almost every case, the individual has misrepresented and largely overestimated the threat of the interview (humiliation, looking foolish and uninformed, interpersonal rejection).
2. Having the person access real (correct) information that will challenge and modify the fearful thoughts.
Another successful cognitive method used to reduce anxiety is decatastrophize: the evaluation of common misrepresentations of the consequences of the event, in this case an interview, and eliminating or minimizing its effects. This is accomplished through a series of questions:
1. What if your worst fear about the interview comes true?
2. Could it be as bad as imagined?
3. Realistically, what will happen?
If these questions are repeatedly evaluated prior to the interview process, the decatastrophize method should reduce the person’s anxiety toward the interview significantly.8
Finally, there is respiratory control. Because hyperventilation is a leading cause of the exacerbation of the physical symptoms associated with interview anxiety such as chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and partial paralysis, it is important that the rate and depth of respirations be controlled. Respiratory control can greatly help the person suffering from anxiety regain control of the situation. (8) It can be accomplished through diaphragmatic breathing—consciously thinking about the rate and depth of breathing in a series of inhalation and exhalation exercises designed to control respiratory drive. Longer, deeper breaths with alternately holding of every other breath for a few seconds longer than normal will reduce the likelihood of hyperventilation.
In the period leading up to the interview, some preventive actions can help minimize interview anxiety, and several common techniques can control it just before the meeting, which is usually considered the critical period:
Prepare. The one thing you are trying to eliminate in the interview process is the fear, and nothing can be scarier than entering an interview unprepared. This will weigh on your mind and compound the situation. Lack of preparation can increase anxiety and leave a candidate’s mind to wander, racing and rambling from one subject to another. Preparation can provide a level of confidence and focus during the interview than can limit anxiety.
Rehearse for the interview. Sometimes confronting one’s fear head-on is the best practice. Rehearsing for the interview, whether before a group of firefighters at the station or family and friends at home, can provide a similar experience and climate that will allow the candidate to evaluate the reality of his fears.
Rest your mind. Do not bring study material to the interview. It’s like you learned in school: There is no need to cram right before the test; if you don’t know it by know, you don’t know it. The same rule applies here.
Focus on a physical object. Find a small place on a wall or preferably outside a window, and concentrate on that one object. This is the same method used by women prior to childbirth to help control their breathing and tolerance for pain.
Bring a book or magazine you have already begun reading. Sometime prior to the interview, stop your reading in a very interesting place, one that will be interesting enough to draw your attention when you resume reading.
Make casual conversation with someone in the area, or call a friend. Sometimes anxiety can be released simply by conversing with another person just prior to the interview.
One of the biggest challenges facing fire officers during their career is the decision to advance to the next step on their career ladder. If prepared, they should not be worried about performing at the next level; certainly the thought of an interview should not deter them from forging ahead with their professional development.
Although a thorough examination of an applicant during the interview process can produce high anxiety levels in any interviewee, there is no reason this should undermine a fire officer’s ability to perform effectively in this situation.9 Just like fighting a house fire or handling an administrative issue, training is the key to success. Because the mind leads the body, reaction to stressful situations, such as interview anxiety, can be controlled through proper training using some of the techniques listed here.
1. “What is social phobia/social anxiety?” www.sociophobia.org/facts. Accessed on Aug. 29, 2003.
2. Thibodeau, G. & Patton, K. The Human Body in Health and Disease (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Mosbey Publishing, 2001.
3. “The sympathetic nervous system,” http://home.swipnet.se/sympatiska/nervous. Accessed on Sept. 4, 2003.
4. “Common diseases/anxiety signs and symptoms,” http://health.uhhp.com/anxiety_ symptoms. Accessed on Aug. 29, 2004.
5. “Panic Attacks,” www.anxiety-treatments.com/panic. Accessed on Sept. 2, 2003.
6. Strande, A. (2001) “Lifting Anxiety,” www.simplehealingclinic.com. Accessed on Sept. 2, 2003.
7. Coleman, R. Going for the Gold: Pursuing and Assuming the Job of Fire Chief. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishing, 1998.
8. Wetzler, S. & Sanderson, W. Treatment strategies for patients with psychiatric comorbidity. NY: Wiley, 1997.
9. Mondy, R., Noe, R., Premeaux, S. Human Resource Management (7th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999.
BRIAN A. CRAWFORD is an assistant chief in the administrative division of the Shreveport (LA) Fire Department and currently serves as assistant to the chief. He is a 19-year department veteran, having served previously as a firefighter/paramedic, an EMS officer, a training officer, and a public information officer. Crawford is a National Fire Academy resident instructor in the Management Sciences Division and is currently a third-year participant in the Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He has a master of arts in industrial/organizational psychology, a bachelor of science in organizational management, and an associate’s degree in paramedic. He serves on the IAFC’s Human Relations Committee.