What Works in a Job Search? Part 3: Keep the Pedal Down

The most effective job search interventions recognize that once you’ve learned and practiced key job search skills, deploying them with persistence requires motivation. This is especially the case when rejections pile up, and the process takes longer than you ever would have expected. In this 4-part series, I’ve explored evidence provided in a classic meta-analysis by Liu, Huang, and Wang on effective job search interventions. The authors found that the most successful job search interventions are those that help people improve their job search strategies and their self-presentation but also foster motivation using four critical ingredients, which I review next.

Stay Proactive

Job-seekers often drift into passivity in the job search, gradually adapting to the status quo rather than taking the initiative needed to speed up a successful outcome. It is easy to feel motivated when first embarking on a job search, but when days become weeks, and especially if weeks become months, that motivation becomes very hard to sustain. Interventions that succeed in reversing this “passivity drift” encourage proactivity and do so in several ways.

One is to urge job seekers to expand the range of positions they are targeting to include some that exceed their qualifications. Job-seekers are often surprised by this, but many employers provide on-the-job training and are happy to hire candidates who meet the minimum qualifications, as long as their interests, values, and personality fit the position well. “Hire for fit, train for talent” is the axiom that describes this approach. Adding this to your strategy increases the volume of positions you can go after; that’s where the need for more proactivity comes in.

Another way of encouraging greater proactivity is to adopt Strickland’s “active approach,” mentioned earlier, by calling a hiring manager after sending a resume. Doing that is not easy; it requires some investigation to identify the person doing the hiring and some gumption to call. A third way is to expand your networking strategy using the informational interview approach that Nick used.

See expert tips for college students embarking on their #JobSearch in part 3 of @Pathway_U’s 4 part series here: Click to Tweet

Still, other ways of expressing proactivity include taking the initiative to provide employers with additional job-related information not requested (perhaps a written case study describing a past success that is relevant for that job), asking former employers for recommendation letters and personal referrals, and even asking employers who do not have any job openings to recommend other employers who they know are hiring. All of these are examples of “above and beyond” job search behaviors that combat passivity and increase the odds of landing a job and landing one faster.

Set Smarter Goals

Written goal setting is one of the critical ingredients in effective job-search interventions. Job search behaviors are easy to connect with clearly stated goals that meet the conditions of smarter goals—that is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound, Engaging, and Reinforcing. Evidence suggests that clearly stated job search goals are positively linked to job search intensity, which is in turn related to job search success.

To harness the impact of smarter goals, some of the especially effective interventions identified in Liu, Huang, and Wang’s meta-analysis required weekly meetings with a counselor to review progress toward reaching one’s current goals and also setting new goals for the next meeting. If you are working with a counselor, this is a useful way of structuring your time together. If you are not, try building in this type of accountability using a group of mentors and support-givers from your social circle. Goal-setting is critical in helping job-seekers stay proactive, sustaining their attention and effort.

Boost Your Job Search Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to people’s beliefs that they can successfully carry out a particular task. This is different than self-esteem, which is global in nature; self-efficacy always pertains to a specific task. I might have high self-esteem—a positive view of myself in general—while simultaneously having low self-efficacy for carrying out various elements of a job search. Similarly, one might have high self-efficacy for some tasks (like submitting an application online) and low self-efficacy for others (like networking). Research on job search self-efficacy is very clear: Self-efficacy is strongly associated with effective job search behaviors, the number of job offers received, and employment status.

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Why does self-efficacy make such a big difference? There are a few reasons. First, when people believe they are highly capable of doing something, they set higher goals. Job-seekers with high self-efficacy set their sights on completing more job applications each week, contacting more employers, and securing more interviews, compared to those with low self-efficacy for those tasks.

Second, when people have high self-efficacy for a particular task—say, cold-calling a hiring manager—they tend to show higher levels of commitment toward that task and greater interest in engaging in it. You can see how self-efficacy ties to motivation in this way; we want to engage in activities we feel confident we can do well. In fact, we feel satisfied when we’ve mastered a challenge, and anticipating that sense of satisfaction motivates us to persist in it. Push yourself to see those cold calls as a challenge that you can master.

Third, when people have high self-efficacy for a task, and they experience failure, they tend to attribute the failure to a lack of effort, whereas people with low self-efficacy assume that failure is due to a lack of ability. Certainly, “I just don’t have what it takes to do this well” kills a person’s motivation, whereas “I could do this better if I tried harder” has the opposite effect. In short, increasing your self-efficacy can sustain you, even when you face challenges and setbacks in the job search.

When applying this to your own life, the key questions are: How confident are you in your ability to carry out your search successfully, and how can you become more confident? The stronger your self-efficacy for your job search, the better your outcomes are likely to be.

Boosting self-efficacy can be accomplished by paying attention to four sources of self-efficacy beliefs: your past performance, your ability to learn by observing others, authentic encouragement you receive from people, and your internal emotional state. Effective job search interventions target these sources to increase self-efficacy. One study tested an intervention that used video clips depicting people carrying out specific job search behaviors well, followed by discussion and a chance to role-play that behavior in small groups, where participants can get feedback and encouragement.

Watching someone model the behavior, then practicing it and receiving encouragement and feedback, targets three of the four sources of self-efficacy beliefs—and evidence from that study revealed that more frequent and successful job search behavior in the “real world” was the result. Add to that a meditative prayer to seek God’s help in quelling the anxiety that wells up within you while you anticipate a job search task, and all four sources are addressed.

To summarize, learning from people who have successfully navigated a job search, trying out the skills yourself, leaning on encouragement from people in your life, and using deep breathing to calm your anxiety will boost your self-efficacy and lead to positive results.

Enlist Support

The final critical ingredient in effective job search interventions involves enlisting social support. Numerous studies have found that social support is associated with how much effort job seekers expend in their job search. One study found that support from a spouse predicted positive attitudes and expectations on the part of the job seeker. Another found that the level of support from family and friends predicted the intensity of a job seeker’s search. In response to this evidence, job search interventions now routinely involve family, friends, and other people in job seekers’ lives who can provide support—both emotional support like encouragement and assurance and tangible support such as help with transportation or child care.

Interventions also urge job seekers to ask for help when identifying job leads, to provide another set of eyes on a cover letter or resume, and to help with practicing for an interview. Group counseling interventions make heavy use of peer support, mutual encouragement, trading resume feedback, and sharing job leads. Interventions that use these kinds of techniques to enlist social support produce better outcomes than interventions that leave this out.

Social support is broadly impactful, too—research reveals such support offers countless benefits across a wide range of challenges. This consistent finding speaks to the fundamental importance of not “going it alone” but walking alongside others who can support you as you face your challenges. Human beings are created to be in a community, both to serve and to be served. Don’t hesitate to lean into it.

Navigating your job search by yourself is a recipe for frustration, failure, and pain. More than that, doing so denies those who love you a chance to express the care they have for you. Others will need you when they face challenging tasks they have to carry out in their lives, and you will have opportunities to support them. But when you are the one navigating a difficult transition—such as a job search—seek the support you need. Doing so is life-giving for everyone involved.

The final post in this series addresses what happens when a job search is successful and you land an offer. How do you evaluate that offer in light of your sense of calling, and how can PathwayU help? Stay tuned.

Portions of this blog are excerpted from Bryan’s latest book, Redeeming Work. Dik, B. J. (2020). Redeeming Work. West Conshohocken PA: Templeton Press.

1. Liu, S., Huang, J. L., & Wang, M. (2014). Effectiveness of job search interventions: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 140(4), 1009.

2. Self-efficacy, outcome expectations and goals are the three key variables used by Social Cognitive Career Theory, first articulated in this paper: Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of vocational behavior, 45(1), 79-122.

3. Kanfer, R., Wanberg, C. R., & Kantrowitz, T. M. (2001). Job search and employment: A personality–motivational analysis and meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied psychology, 86(5), 837.

4. Eden, D., & Aviram, A. (1993). Self-efficacy training to speed reemployment: Helping people to help themselves. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(3), 352.

5. Vinokur, A., & Caplan, R. D. (1987). Attitudes and Social Support: Determinants of Job‐Seeking Behavior and Well‐Being among the Unemployed 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 17(12), 1007-1024.

6.  Rife, J. C., & Belcher, J. R. (1994). Assisting unemployed older workers to become reemployed: An experimental evaluation. Research on Social Work Practice, 4(1), 3-13.

7. Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. In M. Friedman, Ed. Handbook of Health Psychology (pp. 189-214): Oxford University Press.

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