By Art Markman

Harvard Business Review —


Not long ago, I had the chance to speak to a networking group for job seekers over the age of 40. Many of the people in attendance had worked for over 10 years at companies and were then let go. A number of them had been out of work for six months or more and were starting to get worried about their prospects of finding a job.

This situation is quite stressful, particularly when you’re watching people younger than you getting hired into positions you wish you could’ve had. Faced with this situation, it is easy to start getting desperate to land a job — and to unwittingly show that desperation to your prospective employers. There are several reasons you want to avoid appearing — at networking events or in job interviews — as if you need the job too much.

First, a key aspect of success in your application is confidence. In a job interview, the person sitting across from you is trying to project what it will be like to work with you. Your confidence in answering questions is a big part of these judgments. The more worried you are that your job search is dragging on, the less likely you are to project the sense that you will handle whatever the job requires.

Second, employers want to ensure that they are hiring people who will succeed in good times and bad. It’s easy to look like a great employee or leader in good economic times. But there are always pressure-packed days at work. A deadline needs to get met. A key client is considering jumping to another firm. A significant mistake threatens an important project. In those times, employers need to know that people will step up and do what is needed.

If you show desperation and frustration with the job search, employers will question your ability to handle stress after you’re hired. After all, if you can’t keep a level head when you are not yet working, why should they trust you to rise to the occasion after you are putting in full days?

Third, a sense of desperation can hurt your ability to negotiate if and when you do get an offer. You may be so happy to have an offer in hand, that you’ll take the salary offered and overlook limitations in the benefits package.

You have much more leverage to negotiate before you take the job than after you start. Even if you have been out of work for a while, you should still take the time to ensure that the salary meets your needs and that the benefits are sufficient. Otherwise, after a brief honeymoon, it’s likely you’ll be dissatisfied and not in a strong position to ask for a better salary.

Of course, saying you shouldn’t appear desperate is one thing. Successfully doing it is another. There are several things you can do to keep your distress in check.

When you set any long-term goal, you can focus on the desired outcome, or you can focus on the particular actions that are required to get there. Someone who wants to write a book, for example, can set their eyes on being a published author, or they can focus on devoting some time each day to writing. This focus on actions involves setting a process goal rather than an outcome goal.

As I mention in my book, Smart Changean outcome goal refers to a specific state that you hope to reach in the future whereas a process goal focuses on a set of actions you can perform.

Process goals are particularly valuable during an arduous job search. No matter how long it has been since you started looking for a job, the activities you need to engage in to be successful are the same. Check for job openings and apply for positions that suit your experience. Attend networking events to get to know potential employers. Talk to friends and colleagues to find out about upcoming openings. Take classes to improve your skills.  Keep reading to stay current in your field. Practice your interview skills.

Some of these activities are also enjoyable. Developing a new skill comes along with a sense of pride as you increase your abilities. As anxiety-provoking as it can be to get yourself to a networking event, it’s often fun to have a conversation with a new person. There are so many great books out there to enjoy reading; you can get lost in learning.

First, you are likely to be less frustrated about the job search when you are paying attention to the specific actions you need to take. You may not succeed at getting a job on any particular day, but you may have succeeded at applying for new positions, meeting new people, or learning new things. As a result, you are experiencing small successes on your way to the big prize.

Second, many of the things you need to do to get a job are things you need to do after you get hired as well.Keeping up with the latest work in your field is an important part of your success. If you develop habits to read and learn skills, you’ll retain the benefits of those activities even after you start a new job. As a result, you are laying the groundwork for your future success.

Ultimately, the most successful people are those who stay focused on the day-to-day activities that add up to their long-term goals. This is true whether you’re tackling a large project or trying to find a job. Instead of getting desperate that you’ll never get a job — and scaring off potential employees — focus on the job search process, not just the outcome.

Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation.