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The Popular Piece of Advice that Could Be Sabotaging Your Job Search

27/04/2015 11:42 BST | Updated 25/06/2015 10:59 BST

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Image courtesy of opencolleges.edu.au

If you've been following any career advice blogs over the past decade, there's a good chance that you're familiar with a technique called mirroring, which is said to help build rapport and make us seem more likeable in social situations such as job interviews.

Mirroring involves subtly mimicking another person's body language or tone of voice. So if your interviewer scratches their nose, you might touch your chin, and if they cross their legs to the right, you'd cross yours the opposite way.

But while this advice has been popularized by career experts and is even backed up by research, other studies show that in some situations, mirroring may actually get you into trouble and is best avoided unless you're absolutely confident you know what you're doing.

Mirroring can cause you to inadvertantly mimic negative behaviour

One study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that whether you're doing it consciously or not, mirroring can lead you to mimic a person's negative behaviour, which cancels out any positive effects it may have had.

To test this, the researchers had group of college students take part in a staged phone interview. Each student was asked the exact same interview questions; the only difference was that for some students, the interviewer's tone of voice was neutral, while for others the interviewer took on a more negative tone.

Without even realizing it, applicants matched their tone of voice to the interviewer's. Those who had a negative toned interviewer ended up responding to the questions with a more negative tone of voice, and inadvertantly lowered their performance rating.

So if you're in a job interview where the interviewer has low expectations from the start, he or she may feel that their suspicions have been confirmed if they see their negative tone or body language mirrored in your actions and responses.

Unchecked mirroring can even make you seem incompetent and unlikeable

Even if you're making a conscious effort to mimic only positive behaviour, mirroring may still backfire if it seems like you're trying too hard. One 2011 study carried out by University of California, San Diego researchers found that when used as a conscious strategy, mirroring can make you less likable to outside observers.

The researchers had participants watch a number of staged interviews that had been recorded in advance. Some were shown videos where the interviewer was polite, while others watched videos that showed the same interviewer being condescending.

More importantly, though, in some videos the interviewee made an effort to copy some of the interviewer's body language, such as crossing and uncrossing legs or face-touching, while in other videos the interviewees avoided any mimicry.

After watching these interviews, participants were asked to rate the interviewees on their competence and likeability. Although they weren't aware that any mimicry had occurred, they rated the interviewees who mimicked their interviewers as less competent than those who hadn't.

To mirror or not to mirror?

Even though these studies show that mirroring can backfire, there is also plenty of research suggesting that it can be a great way to foster rapport and trust. So what conclusion can we draw from this?

Liam Kavanagh of the psychology department at the University of California, San Diego and co-author of the 2011 study notes that past research shows us that an interviewer is more likely to feel favourable towards a person who flatters them by mimicking their body language or tone of voice, even if outside observers are not too impressed by it.

"Showing that you want to be friends with someone may not be proof that you are a generally altruistic and kind person. It may just show that you are interested in affiliation with the specific person you're mimicking," he explains.

He points out that a big part of life, from grade school to the office, is about choosing sides or fitting into a group. So if group A sees you fitting in with group B, you risk blowing your chances with group A.

"I think the takeaway message is not that mimicry is bad, but that it definitely carries the risk of sending the wrong signal to some people, even while it may send the 'right' signal to others," says Kavanagh.

So how do you know when mirroring might charm an interviewer and when it could reduce you to an unlikable or incompetent candidate?

"Thinking about a mimicry strategy can get complicated pretty quickly," Kavanagh says. "So another thing to consider is that mimicry works best when it looks and feels natural. If others notice that you are mimicking, it will likely backfire."

His advice for job seekers is to go into interviews with the best possible attitude and let their less calculating, more intuitive mind take care of the rest.

"Mimicry research contributes to a wider body of research showing that we present ourselves non-verbally in ways that we aren't always totally aware of, and that people know how to read the cues that we put out," he says.

"Just because we don't logically plan out our non-verbal behaviour does not mean it's dumb, because the processes underlying our non-verbal behaviour are pretty subtle and well adapted to social situations in most cases."

In short, don't go into a job interview and start overthinking every little thing that happens. If you're making a conscious effort to mirror your interviewer while worrying about complicated social dynamics and answering questions at the same time, your behaviour will likely seem forced and can backfire.