Never hire the wrong person again

In the world of communications consultancy at least, you just can’t find good staff any more.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

When I’m recruiting, I’m usually trying to hire into roles where people are tasked with creating intellectual value (producers, creatives, planners, consultants). The ones that really get it? They’re few and far between. Even when there’s a recession raging, the fight for talent is raging along too.

Then, once they’re on board, they might perform beautifully for a while, but it can be patchy. And clients expect flawless service – that’s the so-called hygiene level. Nothing less will do.

But you can’t compel people to deliver consistently at that level. Even financial incentives don’t appear to work (Dan Ariely and others bear that one out). They have to want to perform at their top of their ability.

In past lives, I’ve tried emulating Zappos’ recruitment ethos in order to find people who genuinely want to deliver the requisite consistently high standards. Zappos has a strict policy to only hire candidates whose values match the organisation’s.

But, it still didn’t work for us. Maybe the notion of values is getting a little tired. After all, especially at interview stage, who wouldn’t want to espouse ambition, passion, professionalism etc.

So I’m on a quest to find out the essence of what really makes us want to do stuff – hence this series of four blogs on motivation – this is the last.

In my last blog I was a little cavalier with Michael Wu’s talk on gamification. I admit I over-simplified his analysis to suggest that all you need to do to change behaviour is pull a trigger. I was referring to Fogg’s behaviour model which talks about action taking place once motivation, ability and trigger coincide at a given point in time. This makes sense, but still doesn’t nail the motivation bit. Why do they want to do it?

Perhaps though, why is the wrong question. Perhaps the question is what makes them happy?

Wu introduced me to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow, and a penny dropped.

Diagram of flow

Csikszentmihalyi argues that people are most happy when they are in a state of ‘flow’. This is a state of such concentration that people ignore all other factors – physical, environmental and temporal conditions. To achieve flow a balance must be achieved between challenge and ability. If the person is not skilled enough and the challenge is too hard, or if the person is more skilled than the task requires, flow will not occur. Strike the right balance and the task, to quote the man himself ‘becomes work that you are doing for its own sake’.

The implications for gamification here are clear – to keep a player interested: in the zone, the game architect needs to progressively adjust the balance between the level of challenge and the ability of the player.

But it occurred to me, this is how we can ensure we always hire the right people who will deliver excellence consistently.

It’s a simple three step process.

First we need to identify the core function of a given job.

Second we need to structure our interviews to discover those candidates who get into a flow state when they perform that task. Hire them. Assuming a base level of aptitude is there, values and technical skills are secondary.

Third, throughout the term of their employment we need to continue to create a flow environment. This involves progressively orchestrating the right conditions that will continue to produce flow. Adding just the right combination of complexity and challenge.

Admittedly this is not easy. We’re also going to need to find managers who get into a state of flow over this kind of attentive and proactive people and business management.

It will be tricky to manufacture but surely it’s just a more refined version of what we are supposed to do anyway to keep our staff happy and motivated. If we run the kind of company where we find ourselves repeating that old chestnut ‘people are our business’ perhaps it’s time to start nurturing those seedlings and creating the right environment for flow.

In practice, good recruiters, or people who hire well, have either cracked this and kept it to themselves, or do it instinctively. But in the main, in the agency world, we don’t even follow the basics of good recruitment practice. We don’t have clear job descriptions. We don’t have a clear set of hiring criteria. We don’t follow process to ensure consistency and we don’t interview effectively. We rely on pot luck and uneducated gut feel. And then let our staff fend for themselves once they’re in the door.

So there is an element of look first unto ourselves if our team isn’t working well.

Getting the basics right would make a massive difference in hiring the right staff. But if we’re already doing all of that, then I am convinced that a bloody minded adherence to only hiring people who get into flow performing the task we require is the way to go.

Flow is the silver bullet.

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7 thoughts on “Never hire the wrong person again

  1. Karen Drury

    Hi Jane
    I think your post is intelligent, well written and thoughtful. I wonder if in reading Csikszentmihalyi, you also spotted the obvious negative which can occur with lots of people in “flow” – overwork. People in flow lose track of time, forget to eat, neglect social relationships. This might be fine for the organisation in the short term, but long term isn’t helpful. So you not only need to create conditions which lead to flow, you also have to put in place conditions which prompt people to go home at some stage.

    In addition, I’m not sure how you’d test for flow in interview – the tensions that interviews create is not conducive to the state, even if you could think of a comparative test for the various participants. Has got me thinking, though….

    1. janeyfranklin Post author

      Hi Karen
      On a flippant note, overwork isn’t often discouraged in agency world…

      I agree though, the danger of a workforce all in a state of flow would be one of pure burn out. I think real world conditions would mitigate to an extent. Even if you love your work, you can’t always muster the energy required. Nonetheless, you would need to take care of your people to balance working effectively with recharging and having a life outside of the workplace.

      I think at the interview stage you would be looking for evidence of past situations where the candidate has experienced flow. Having identified the core activity or function of a role, you would structure your questions such that candidates could talk through their experiences when performing that particular task.

      For example, two former colleagues (who have since gone on to form a partnership and a very successful business based on this shared passion) were media relations consultants in a PR agency. There was nothing they liked more than pitching and securing articles in the media. They called themselves ‘coverage junkies’. The essence of what you need from a media relations consultant is someone who is just a bit manic about getting coverage.

      You could interview for media relations consultants and focus on a whole range of skills and expertise and go for a balanced scorecard approach to hiring. Every candidate would say their values were commitment to client service, passion and professionalism. But if the one thing that makes your client love you is the ability to score column inches, what you need is a coverage junkie.

      A single minded focus on flow would make the recruitment search longer and harder but worth it in the end. To refer to Zappos again, they do invest an awful lot of time in finding exactly the right candidates and that protects and maintains the corporate culture and service ethic that is their differentiator.

      In a way, this is common sense, but I think too often we don’t follow the basics of common sense and then wonder why we’re not getting the performance we had hoped for, and why our staff aren’t as happy as they could be…

      Sorry for the verbose reply! And thanks again for commenting.


  2. andreaedwards

    Jane, great stuff and as always, you offer an interesting and articulate perspective. I can relate to the idea of the “flow” as that is definitely where I go when I’m really enjoying my work. Athough with that said, I’m strong enough to go there on my own, many people are not – that 80% mentioned in the other blog. Thus they need good leadersip and throughout my career, I’ve rarely seen or experienced great leadership. When you have an inspired and energized boss who really believes in what you are creating together, well that is a great motivator for any team. So it’s a two-way street I reckon. But nice job on the blog – really pleased to see you doing it. Not easy putting yourself out there huh? I’ll read as often as I can and support you woman, as you have done for me!


    1. janeyfranklin Post author

      Hi Larry

      What a mind expanding comment. I must admit, I’m a good illustration of the epithet ‘a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing’. i’ve not heard of Walker and his work and will get reading. What a great concept.

      If I thought creating intrinsic flow was a challenge, social flow… I’m working right now with a team that is patently not experiencing social flow, to its detriment. I’m immediately wondering how to engineer an environment for them that might foster social flow.

      Thank you for sharing your blog post.

  3. Larry Irons

    Thanks for that response. If you like the thinking in the blog post I’d recommend taking a look at Keith Sawyer’s book, Group Genius, where he describes what I term social flow, though admittedly Keith uses different terminology calling the phenomena group flow. It isn’t a new book but his approach anticipates the social flow discussion.


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