Why great candidates freeze in tech interviews – and what interviewers can do about it

September 17, 2018

Read time 6 min

Sweaty palms, anxiety, words stuck in your throat. Sitting in an ergonomic yet poorly adjusted office chair with a company-provided laptop in front of them, our candidate has suddenly and irreversibly lost their ability to string together meaningful characters that form coherent blocks of code. Feeling vicariously ashamed, an interviewer sits next to them, offering tiny hints and suggestions – anything really – hoping that it would move the situation forward, lest they have to sit there in deafening silence for the next two hours. Needless to say, the end result is an utter failure, both parties leaving the room bewildered, wondering how what just took place was possible even when all signs and credentials suggested otherwise.

It is not once or twice I have personally seen this (let’s call it “professional disintegration”) happen in a job interview, and over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of tricks to help alleviate the situation. Sometimes all it takes is a simple pause or a sip of water to set a candidate’s mind at ease, and we’re able to continue the conversation as usual. At other times the mental block is so bad that none of my tricks will work and the interview is destined to fail, even though the candidate seemed extremely promising from the get-go. This has led me to search for explanations for this curious freezing effect. It seems that there are fundamental reasons in the way we humans behave that no simple recruiter trick will alleviate. Instead, this mandates a deeper rethinking of the entire interview process.

So what can we do as interviewers to help candidates overcome the interview paralysis? And why does it happen in the first place?

The neuroscience behind social anxiety

I’ve always been fascinated by neuroscience. The very thought that some of our feelings and behaviors can be traced back to physiological effects is thought-provoking, as it blurs the line between the body and the mind. Not long ago was I introduced to the SCARF model by David Rock. Rock’s model offers a glimpse into the underlying neurological processes that can trigger certain behaviors in us humans, including the “freeze” effect I’d witnessed in some interviews. In short, Rock (and the authors he cites) posits that due to us humans being social creatures, our brains have evolved to treat social needs similarly to more primitive needs, such as food, water and shelter. This means that facing a threatening social situation causes the very same effects as facing a life-threatening situation.

Likewise, when we’re faced with a perceived social threat, the same physiological reactions take place in our brains as when faced with a physical one. These include e.g. the rerouting of oxygen and glucose away from the prefrontal cortex to be used elsewhere, which literally makes us less capable of conscious planning. These processes are so ingrained in us that they are activated automatically and even before the stimuli triggering them has had a chance to enter our consciousness – we react even before we have time to think. And for some candidates, the automated response to facing a threatening social situation, such as a job interview, is to freeze in the hope that it will soon pass, not unlike a tortoise pulling its head and limbs tightly inside its shell and waiting for the predator to pass before reemerging. 

As you probably surmised, SCARF is an acronym, made up of the five domains of social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These domains are interconnected in nature. For interviewers such as myself, they offer different perspectives from which to examine the interview process, and help us find ways to avoid unintentionally triggering threat responses in candidates.

Status is the measure of our relative importance. It is the social hierarchy as we perceive it and changes to it.

Certainty, by definition, measures our ability to predict what will happen next in a social encounter. Even the slightest sense of uncertainty forces the brain to exert effort in attempting to predict what is going to happen next and whether or not that will pose a threat to us.

Autonomy is our sense of being in control. Being able to influence situations that unfold reduces the feeling of stress (increasing certainty at the same time).

Relatedness describes the feeling of being in the “same group”. Over the history, we’ve come to perceive those that are not part of the same social circle as potential threats, and while we may no longer live in the types of communities where these patterns emerged, our brains still continue to function as if we did.

Fairness seems rather self-explanatory, but it carries the hidden pitfall of being relative and subjective. What seems fair to some may seem completely unfair to others.

Exploring the entire recruitment pipeline through each of these five domains reveals areas of potential improvement. In order to establish a healthy balance of social status, one may e.g. recognize and reaffirm a candidate’s strengths, or avoid unnecessary conflicts in the social pecking order. Sending a clear agenda of the upcoming interview along with a list of who will be attending and what talking points to expect goes a long way in clearing uncertainty. If possible, the agenda may offer a degree of autonomy for the candidate to choose some of the talking points (at least from a list of alternatives) or let them select a time for the meeting that suits their schedule the best. Having future teammates or colleagues interview a candidate goes a long way in increasing the sense of relatedness in a very concrete way. Finally, it is obvious that the subsequent candidate evaluation and any decisions should be fair, but what is often forgotten is communicating the basis of these decisions to the candidate. A good start can be as straightforward as asking the candidate: “do you think that I have received a sufficiently thorough impression of your skills and attributes, or is there something else that you would wish to bring forward?”

The SCARF model gives us a way to examine different aspects of our interview and recruitment practices and whether they risk triggering unwanted threat responses. We’ve already started to implement changes at Reaktor, including giving candidates a clear agenda of what is going to happen (increasing certainty), allowing the candidate to affect the course of our interview sessions (increasing autonomy), having peers interview candidates (increasing relatedness) and being more explicit about the rationales behind decisions (increasing fairness).

While we’re still far from perfect, the results we have so far are encouraging. In the end, I hope we will achieve a win-win situation: not only do we hope that our candidates will be able to perform better in our interviews without having undesirable distractions impairing their cognitive functions, but also that the end result is a less stressful and more pleasing interview experience.

Want to experience our interviewing techniques for yourself? Go to our careers section for more on our culture, offices and open positions. We’d love to hear from you!

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the latest from us in tech, business, design – and why not life.