Career Management

Making a job application is a time consuming activity these days. To stand out in this employers market when there’s lots of competition requires research, time and commitment. So deciding whether to apply for a role is a serious consideration. Usually people looking for a promotion or a new role examine the person specifications and consider whether they meet it. But it is hard to tell and really hard to know if you meet it well enough for it to be worth the effort of applying. Often coachees will ask me: should I apply for this? Others will come with a vacancy and go: I am going to apply for this, what do you think?

Being realistic about your own prospects of success is quite difficult. People who are out of work may consider that they have nothing to lose in casting their net widely and having a punt. (This rather ignores the depression that can set in with the law of diminishing returns) So if they fancy the role they will have a go. When I’m coaching people my work is to support them and not to pour cold water on their ambition: although there will be times when I do counsel and more focussed or targeted approach.

So I was really interested to read about the Kruger-Dunning effect, in 1999 they hypothesized that the more people know the less confident they are , whereas the less people know the more they overestimate their abilities.

For a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  • fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  • recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Having gone on studying this cognitive bias they have deduced (2008) that poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve. They lack the skill and experience to enable them to know what they don’t know.

The caveat of this is that they were testing humour, grammar and logic rather than the ability to solve complex problems or lead organisations. But it is an interesting principle: we don’t know what we don’t know.

So how can people make sensible decisions about whether to apply for a role?

There is a lot of subjective judgement about your own abilities, but you can reduce your margin of error. What is that Dunning and Kruger say: you can’t know what you don’t know, and the people who over-estimate their abilities don’t listen to feedback. So get on with your research, find out what this job is really about, what skills it really needs and then ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Look at the objective criteria: do I have the right qualifications, right experience? Go back to the advert. Person specifications may be corporate and fairly generic but the advert will have been briefed by the line manager and focus on the absolute key things required. The advert can help you identify the deal breaker criteria.
  2. Look at the person specification and ask yourself ‘if I were recruiting for this role what would my ideal candidate be doing now?’ Does this describe you?
  3. Ask ‘if I were recruiting for this role and could not have my ideal candidate, which of these criteria would I be willing to give up?’
  4. Given that you now know what the ideal person looks like and what they are doing now, does such a person exist? Are there lots of them? What have I got that would be really useful that this ideal person may not have?
  5. Ask if you are 80% of the way there towards meeting this specification? If the answer to that is yes then it may be worth the punt…This is where the real subjectivity kicks in: but pay attention to the numbers in the job description and the significance of the experience they are asking for. If it is a fundraising job, running a Race for Life may not be want they want… yes you worked hard but just how much will they be expecting you to raise? that will give you some clues.
  6. Treat the writing of the application as a test. If it flows easily and you are finding that you have the right examples and it is easy to feel confident then you are probably in the right area. If you are struggling and not sure that your examples are of the same depth and breadth as the tasks in the job… then that struggle is an indication to you.

If the job is being handled by one of the reputable search firms then talk to the consultant, they should be able to give you a steer about what the employer is really looking for and what experience and skills they are really interested in. But wait until you have done some research and are in a position to talk to the consultant from a position of knowing how well you match the role. Similarly talk to the line manager if that is on offer, but be prepared to listen more than talk. The line manager or consultant will ask if they want to know more about you. In general do not treat this as a first interview if it is a public sector job: the preliminary screening takes place once you’ve applied.

When people ask me whether they should apply for a role I get them to work out the answer for themselves. Sometimes I need to encourage people.. the overly cautious will worry that they are not a full match and that there will always be someone better and more suitable than them. They need some encouragement. At the end of the day those recruiting will tell you whether you are suitable but if you don’t go to the party you can’t win the prize.

So find out what you don’t know about the job and then find out what you know and what you don’t know about yourself. Bear in mind the Dunning and Kruger research and come to a balanced view of yourself and your fit. Oh, and say a prayer because some luck will always help speed your application.

Related: What Every Applicant Ought to Know About HR People.

About Mary Hope

Mary Hope is the founder of Mary Hope Career Success, she works with executives and managers to support them get paid more, promoted faster and feel more satisfied. She has 30 years experience of HR, training and headhunting both private and public sectors, is a published author and career coach. Follow Mary on Twitter @maryhopecareers

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