Standing Out from the Crowd: How to Nail a Group Interview
Imagine you have got an interview call from a consumer retail company.
You create a portfolio of your education and work experience, groom your appearance, research on the company and the industry, think of all the possible questions that the interviewer may ask and rehearse your answers in front of the mirror.
And then, when you walk into the reception of the office, you are asked to wait in a room where half a dozen others are also waiting.
Of course, you had already expected that there would be other candidates for the position you applied for.
If you are an extrovert by nature, you could pick up a conversation with the other candidates.
Using your charm and talking them into revealing their background, their views on the job and the industry, you may even get some additional inputs on the job requirement.
If this is not the first job that you are applying for, you may even exchange business cards. You do this not by any ulterior motive but simply to build up your network of professional contacts. You never know who comes useful and when.
The twist in the script comes when you are actually called in for the interview.
You had expected to be called one by one.
What if all of you are called in together?
This could be somewhat unnerving when you have competitors sitting with you, all vying for the attention of the interviewer and knowing that the panel across is observing all of you closely.
Smile even when you are nervous but make sure that your smile is genuine.
Be cautious with your verbal and non-verbal communication.
GROUP INTERVIEWS: WHAT AND WHEN?
Group interviews are becoming the norm for many types of recruitment.
For entry-level positions, especially when companies hire at campuses, many recruiters use group interviews as a first screening of candidates. Rather than asking the same questions to many candidates, interviewers often put all interviewees in the same room and ask the common questions one by one.
Group interviews are also preferred for positions which require a lot of customer interaction or teamwork.
Observing the candidates’ behavior when in a group gives an indication how they might behave on the ground while at work.
The interviewer observes if the interviewee makes everyone comfortable while he speaks. “Does he make eye contact with the interviewers as well as the other interviewees? “Does he include others when he speaks and responds”? “Does he know how to manage the flow of the conversation?”
Typically, individual interviews follow the group interview. Group interviews may be of three types:
- Group discussions
- Interviewing groups of candidates by a panel of interviews
- Simulation of business activities in a group
Companies hold group interviews not just to save time – although such interviews are conducted many a times as an elimination round when there is a large number of candidates – but to evaluate candidates’ leadership and teamwork capabilities.
It is important to understand what recruiters expect of you so that you can behave and perform accordingly.
Group discussions indicate your worldview and your psychological orientation. Interviewer may even use this platform to understand your social, political and cultural views. It’s best to err on the right side and not demonstrate any form of aggression in your expression or communication.
Group activities are often conducted while interviewing positions which require high degree of customer interaction and teamwork.
EIGHT STEPS TO NAIL THE GROUP INTERVIEW
1. Research and prepare
Research about the organization you are being interviewed and about the panel of interviewers, if you get to know of the names in advance.
Think about the possible traits that the organization would look for in the candidate.
If you can find out some special interests among the interviewers, you might earn some brownie points if you can bring that up in the course of discussion.
But there’s a also a risk in taking this approach.
If there is a panel of interviewees, it might not create a favorable impression with the other panel members if you begin discussing on a special interest of a particular member.
Prepare a detailed introduction of yourself, in addition to what you have in your resume.
Tailor the introduction according to the requirements of the job.
For example, if the interview is for a customer relationship manager, make a checklist of your past experience in a similar profile, your strengths in dealing with customers and your special people skills.
Keep the checklist jotted down in your notebook, which you can refer to when you are facing the interview.
2. Dress Right
Physical appearance has been seen to be an important factor for interviewers’ evaluation.
This is based on the premise of the belief that “what is beautiful is good”.
Especially for jobs that require high degree of customer contact, physical appearance is evaluated more closely.
Although questions on physical appearance are illegal in most societies, interviewers tend to create the impression of the candidate on the basis of appearance and the sense of dressing. It is safe to dress conventionally depending on the job profile.
It is the custom to dress more formally in some professions like banking than, say, in the entertainment industry.
Do your research on the dress code of the industry that you are interviewing for. It is better to stand out with your behavior and communication than with your dress.
You would not like to stick out, rather than stand out, because of your unusual dress, jazzy jewelry, unconventional hairstyle or the heel height of your shoes.
3. Know your peer
Your extrovert nature could come handy in preparing for the group interview.
Do arrive for the interview at least 30 minutes ahead.
That would give you time to observe the workplace and chitchat with the other candidates.
Remember that you are under the radar of observation the moment you walk into the office.
Even if the actual interviewers are behind closed doors, there are people who are watching your gait and behavior when you introduce yourself to the receptionist and taken to the waiting room.
Walk in confidently, taking long strides.
When you walk into the waiting room where other candidates are also waiting, don’t simply go to the other end of the table, sit crouching on the chair and begin to fiddle with the phone.
Walk up where the others are sitting and make a conversation with them.
Give an impression of eagerness and friendliness. Familiarity with other candidates would later facilitate the flow of discussions.
4. Choose the right seat
Try to take the seat that is at the most vantage point.
For example, if the seating arrangement is in a semi-circle, try to take the middle chair so that you can look straight at the interviewer.
If there are rows of chairs, you should definitely sit in the first row and not hide behind others. The idea is, of course, to make yourself visible and create a mark.
How you space, or proxemics, has also been found to have hidden messages, according to studies.
We usually allow our intimate people to encroach within 0-1.5ft from us, which is our body territory or the “bubble” that we create around our person.
The social distance of 4-11 ft around us is meant for business meetings or general gatherings for people who are not very well know, according to Edward Hall.
When you are forced into a huddle with unknown people who encroach our “bubble”, as in a group interview, you may feel uncomfortable. How you use the space to deal with your discomfort would give an indication your personality.
“Thousands of experiences tell us that space communicates”, Edward Hall
How you orient your body indicates your need to communicate. An aggressive person tends to push his chair away from his neighbor when the latter challenges him.
On the other hand, a person who sits in the centre of a circular seating arrangement or a central point of a square or rectangular table indicates that he needs to belong to a group.
A person who tends to push his chair towards the neighbor or towards the table may tend to appear pushy and too invasive. The observant interviewer is likely to get the clue on your personality traits in a group dynamic situation from your choice of seat.
5. Control your non-verbal communication
It is but natural to be nervous at an interview. A group interview can be all the more scary. But, it is important not to give away the temerity that is inside you.
As Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist who researched the interaction of hormones and body language, would say, you can fake your ‘power pose’ even when you are not feeling as powerful.
Cuddy postulated that adopting a powerful or an expansive posture has wide-ranging effect on emotional, cognitive, behavioral and psychological behavior.
Not only does your posture indicate what kind of a person you are – the interviewer is of course trying to gauge from your posture whether you are lazy or hardworking, passive or proactive, aggressive or submissive – it also affects your behavior.
It would be a good idea to stretch your muscles, or do a ‘lion-stretching’ as I would call it, before entering the interview room. Cuddy says, a power posture can activate your behavior approach system and make you happier, optimistic, creative, confident, energetic, less inhibited and more likely to take action.
Sit with your back straight and upright, with your feet firmly on the ground. It is better if you sit on the edge of the chair, slightly leaning forward, with your hands on your knees to give an impression of attentiveness and alertness.
Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication. Ray Birdswhistell, one of the pioneers in kinesics, the study of body language, found that 65% of the communication in a face-to-face interaction is transmitted through non-verbal means.
It is often said, “You cannot not communicate” even when you do not speak.
Suppose you walk into the room, choose to sit at one end of the row, turn your chair from the others, refuse to even look at the other candidates and glance at the interviewers tangentially.
You may think that you are not communicating with the others but there’s a message that you are giving out – that you do not care about them and you think you are “too good” for them.
This message does not show you in a very good light. The thought that you should have is not “Should I communicate?” but “What should I communicate”?
Make straight eye contact with the interviewer when he puts his questions across or when you reply.
During the group discussion, you need to make eye contact with the other candidates as you speak.
Be careful that the eye contact does not make you appear rude and bossy, though.
Facial expression indicates feelings and moods. It demonstrates emotions like anger, disgust and disagreement as much as it indicates agreement, support and camaraderie.
People with poker faces, with very little changes in facial expressions, are less trusted. A friendly smile and a cheerful demeanor not only make you noticeable but also give you a bonus point in trust.
Communication through movement, called kinesics, reveals our feelings through body movement and gestures. People tend to move towards those they like and away from those they dislike. If you develop a prejudice against someone you interact before the interview, do not show it.
Body movements like shifting in your chair, fidgeting with your fingers and tapping your feet reveal that you are tense, frustrated or annoyed over the direction of the discussion.
Very often, group members with low status power tend to imitate the body movements of the low status power, known as body synchronization. Simply by observing body movements, interviewers tend to assess the power equation among the group members.
Body movements of a person also signal the flow of argument. For example, a person tends to relax the body or stop the hand gestures just before finishing speaking. This may give a cue to begin speaking if you are waiting for your chance.
6. Speak early and clearly
In a ball dance, the man who breaks the floor is considered the smartest one. In a group interview, too, the first three minutes create the most lasting impression on the interviewer.
Through the remaining period of the interview, the interviewer simply validates the first impression.
So, if you can put your voice across in the first three minutes, half the battle is won. But, make sure that you have enough content to speak about in those first minutes.
Don’t simply start with “Friends, we have gathered here to discuss….” and then keep rambling without making much sense.
Clarity of speech and articulation is one of the most important traits that a recruiter looks for.
By speaking first, you get the advantage of gearing the discussion in the direction that you are most comfortable in so don’t waste your chance. Even when you are not the first speaker, do try to get into the conversation in the first couple of minutes.
You are often told that you should not be too aggressive in group interviews.
True, you should not interject when someone else is speaking.
Courtesy and politeness is important.
You definitely do not want to come across as a rude and aggressive person.
But sometimes, to make your presence felt, you might need to cut short somebody else’s speech. Like losing a piece in a chess game strategically, make sure that you balance the negative point that you score by being aggressive with three positive points that add up on to your account.
You should have very strong points of discussion up your sleeves when you assert yourself over another person.
We all get floored when a person speaks fluently in a baritone and in a polished manner.
But not everyone is a Richard Burton.
What matters in group discussions and interviews is the clarity of thought and speech.
The public speaking classes in your college would come handy to you now. Organize your thoughts speak clearly so that others can interpret what you are saying in the way that you intend.
Remember that everyone else is as desperate as you are to turn the table towards him or her. Do not be so abstract that someone else may pick up a cue from your speech and turn the discussion 180 degrees from your logic.
State your ideas briefly, simply and concisely.
Do not ramble. When you see others eyes glaze over you, understand that it is time to shut up.
For group discussions, most recruiters give out the topic for discussion a few minutes ahead. Always carry a notebook or a diary to the interview so that you can jot down points.
Prioritize the points that you would like to speak about.
Remember that you will not have all the time in the world to demonstrate your uniqueness. Do not use up that time with the less important points, thinking that the best point will be your trump card. You may end up not getting the chance to play your trump card if you do not prioritize.
Do not mix up multiple points in your speech. Give the group discuss one point at a time so that you get the chance to elaborate your idea.
For example, if you are discussing car safety, and you say, “Many people are injured when a car bumper fails. Besides, a car should have anti-lock brakes and steering wheels that switch off when the ignition fails”, one of the group can pick up on the bumper, another on the brake and a third one on the steering wheel.
The discussion would turn chaotic.
Also, if you speak one point at a time, you will turn the interviewer’s gaze over you multiple times and thus increase your chances of recall in his or her mind.
Think on your feet and respond quickly. And it is better to respond with “Yes, and…” rather than “no but…”
7. Be a good listener
A good speaker is also a good listener.
Often enough in a group interview or discussion, others provide you with the points that you can expand upon. If you think the discussion is moving away from your comfort zone, grab any point that you can to switch the topic towards your area of interest.
Support some of your co-interviewees’ statements but add value to what they have already said.
Don’t simply repeat what they have said.
Remember there is a difference between a leader in the group discussion and an aggregator of ideas.
You may encourage your peers to provide you with ideas in the discussion. Collating these ideas may give you an opportunity to speak for a couple of minutes.
But a person with strong leadership traits would not only act as the anchor of ideas but also add on to the ideas and provide the master stroke.
Take notes in your scribbling pad when others are speaking and respond at the appropriate time, without appearing to be a pushover. Never let your mind to float away even when someone is rambling.
That’s your chance to grab the spotlight and change the direction of the discussion.
Observe your interviewer’s response to the flow of discussion.
You can detect a hostile listener, a bored listener, a tired listener or an engaged listener in the interview.
Adapt your response accordingly and stand out in the crowd. If you can turn a bored interviewer to an engaged one, the job is yours.
“In our louder and louder world, we are losing our listening”, Julian Treasure
8. Be assertive, be courteous
Recruiters want assertive employees, not aggressive ones. Be confident and state your ideas and points clearly but never by alienating others.
Your tone should be such that it gives the message: “You and I may have differences in opinion but I am entitled to my opinion as much as you are entitled to yours”.
Be careful never to tread on others’ opinion on the basis of ideology and worldview. An excessively opinionated person comes across as a very rigid person.
In a changing business environment where change is the only constant, flexibility of ideas and action is the rule of the game. Involving others in the discussion, even the most reclusive of the candidates, demonstrates your leadership qualities.
A participatory discussion improves not only your intellectual standing but also the emotional satisfaction and self-esteem. This would make interviewers trust your teamwork and leadership skills.
At the same time, do not go out of your way to avoid conflict as a passive communicator would do.
Do not apologize for what you say or use devaluing sentences like “I just thought…”, “I might be wrong, but…”.
Such sentences indicate that what follows is trivial or unimportant and devalues your thought or statement. Instead, balance between being passive and aggressive and assert your opinion while being respectful of others.
Assertive communication is the style that is most aspired for while being the most difficult to follow. Here are some tips to be assertive:
Reading patterns: Sit back and think when you tend to be aggressive and when you are unable to express your opinion. Since you would not be in a position to recognize behavior patterns of strangers at the group interview, the best you can do is to analyze your own behavior pattern. Once you recognize your response pattern, build a strategy to response that would be tactful, effective and assertive.
Synchronize your verbal and non-verbal communication: See that your physical cues like hand gestures, eye contact, non-intimidating body posture, facial expression and voice modulation and tone matches your choice of words and sentences.
Pick your battles: Conflicts may arise in group discussions, particularly if the topic is controversial. Two things can happen in such situations – either you end up fighting with someone in the group (definitely not desirable) or you push your emotions and opinion under the carpet to avoid conflict (if the interviewer has the same opinion as you do, you have lost the chance to validate his point).
Instead, be clear and specific about what you want to say and acknowledge the non-negotiable points. It tells the interviewer that you are honest in your approach and come across as a fair person. Don’t say ‘yes’ to something when you actually mean ‘no’.