Applying for a job is a humbling process. You must first convince an unseen human resources manager that your eagerness and competence warrant an interview. Should you make it far enough to meet a potential boss face to face, you might have only minutes to impress them. Until you are holding an offer letter, the firm has the upper hand—and you are scrambling to, somehow, keep yourself in the running.
"When you're interviewing for a job, you're typically in a position of low power," says Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. But in a recent study, Rucker and a group of colleagues from the U.S. and Europe found that when you are low on the food chain, thinking back to a moment when you were on top may help your performance: applicants who jotted down a couple lines about a time when they were powerful before composing a cover letter or heading into an interview were deemed more hirable or admittable than those who had reminisced about a time when they were powerless, or had not scribbled anything at all. Even a small dose of power for the powerless, it seems, can help them get the job.
The Perks of Power—Even in Retrospect
With his collaborators—Joris Lammers of the University of Cologne in Germany; David Dubois of INSEAD in France; and Adam Galinsky of Columbia—Rucker has spent a decade studying how power impacts people. In previous studies, the researchers have developed a simple strategy—bringing to mind past experiences of power or lack thereof—to quickly make people feel either powerful or powerless. They have found that being in a high-power state makes people feel, and act, quite differently.
“If you write about a time you felt powerful, lots of positive things start flooding in, like confidence, control, and mastery.”
"You can even do it yourself: if you write about a time you felt powerful, lots of positive things start flooding in, like confidence, control, and mastery," Rucker says. People primed to feel powerful in this way are also more optimistic, appear more competent, and demonstrate more dominant nonverbal behavior compared with people who write about a time they felt they had little power,or about a power-neutral memory. "These all seem like desirable qualities to have," Rucker says, "especially when you're interviewing for a job," a situation where nerves can leave people vulnerable to appearing less confident, less skilled, and more withdrawn than they would otherwise.
But does this strategy in fact translate from laboratory tasks to job applications? "It’s still too early to know whether it works for everyone or in all situations. We view this as a first step in an important topic.”
Power Leads to Hirability on Paper …
In their first experiment, Rucker and his collaborators instructed about eighty Dutch college students to complete a power-related writing exercise: half of them wrote about a time they had power, and the other half about a time they didn't. (In the high-power group, people tended to write about situations where they had power at work—say, as a shift manager at a restaurant—and in the low-power group, people often wrote about situations where they had to report to someone else, like a boss or a professor.) Then, in what they were told was an unrelated task, both the high- and low-power students were asked to write a letter of application for a job—the description was an ad for a real sales analyst job, taken from the newspaper—as though they had the relevant experience and education.
Later, each letter was given to another participant in the study. These people didn't know that the letter-writers had done a writing exercise, and power was not mentioned all. They were simply asked, after reading the letter, how likely they would be to hire that applicant. On average, researchers found, the readers were significantly more likely to offer the job to people who had written their letter after thinking about a time when they were powerful rather than powerless. That “unrelated” short exercise made their applications more appealing.
… And Persuasiveness in Person
The researchers also looked at whether the power prompt would help with in-person interviews. In this experiment, 55 French undergraduates completed mock business school entrance interviews: 15-minute sessions with two experienced interviewers, usually professors, to simulate what they would face later on with the actual admissions committee. In those 15 minutes, the students had to try to convince the interviewers that they had the skills, experience, and motivation to do well in business school. As in the other study, the students completed what they were told was an unrelated writing task before their interview, with some students writing about a time they had power, some writing about a time they did not, and a third group providing a baseline for comparison by not doing anything at all.
After the interview, the interviewers, who did not know about the power-focused writing prompt, were asked whether they would admit each candidate, as well as how persuasive they found them. Once again, people in the high-power condition came out on top: the interviewers were 81 percent more likely say they would admit high-power applicants than applicants in the baseline group, and 162 percent more likely to say they would admit high-power applicants than applicants in the low-power group.
Their higher performance seems to be due to persuasiveness. The interviewers rated high-power applicants as more persuasive than low-power applicants. When evaluating applicants from the high-power group, "it's not that the interviewers go, 'I don't know, I just like this person,'" Rucker says. "It's that they sense that person was more convincing." Exactly what part of the high-power group's performance was more persuasive is not yet clear, a question the research team is hoping to address in future studies.
Rucker and his colleagues are also planning to investigate how much it matters whether people are aware they are being primed to feel powerful, or whether they are unaware, as the participants in these studies were. "My intuition is that for some people awareness will help, and for some people it will not," Rucker says. If you can easily bring to mind a powerful situation, knowing the purpose of the prompt may be fine; if you have difficulty recalling a time you had power, it might actually hurt your performance in an interview. "If you struggle so much to build your confidence [before an interview], then that could actually undermine your confidence," he explains.
As to whether you should try the writing exercise before your next interview, "We kind of want there to be a warning label on it: effects may vary," Rucker jokes. "Right now we just don't have a complete picture about what it is going to do for you as an individual." But if you can think of a powerful moment in your past, and are hoping to make a job change in the near future, it may be worth a try.