How to attract and keep happy humans*

(*for your business, not your love life)

Last month the second annual Newcastle Startup Week took place across multiple venues across the city. Five days and nights of inspiration and support from 50 speakers for those thinking about starting or growing a business! It was a real privilege that one of those speakers was me, joined on stage (get me!) by my fellow crusader in all things HR and Psychology, Rob Baker, Founder and Director of Tailored Thinking.

Quite simply, as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke, Rob makes work better by putting wellbeing first and applying positive psychology, and behavioural science.

Together, Rob and I gave a brief ‘fireside’ talk for business folks in the early stages of growth about how they can go about attracting the right sort of humans to work with, as well as keeping them happy so they stick around for the long haul. Here are our tips:

1)    Get personal

Rob: My frustration with our current approach to recruiting and managing people at work is that we try to make one size fit all. While this comes with the best of intentions as employers try to make things fair and equal, treating everyone the same sometimes means we forget to treat people as human beings.

We spend too much time precisely defining roles within detailed job descriptions, and then try to shoehorn people into being the perfect fit.

It’s a rigid approach and the truth is it’s failing. Research reveals that a third of the workforce gets a sinking feeling when they think about work. And another third reports not enjoying work. We must do better.

Michelle: So, how can we fix this?

Rob: Quite simply, we need to be a bit more flexible.

Our work is often a lot more flexible than the average job description would have you believe, and we know that people are all different. We’re all wired differently. We’ve got more than 300 trillion neural connections and pathways in our brain. When you think of it like that, it’s easier to understand that it’s impossible for one person to think exactly like another.

Rather than ignore our diversity and expect everyone to do their work in the exact same way, let’s embrace and leverage our individual talents. After all, these days we can customise everything from our holidays, our clothes and trainers, and even jars of Marmite. It’s time for us to start actively personalising our work too.

Michelle: It sounds great, but in reality, we often have specific and let’s face it, pretty uniform tasks and activities we need people to do, so how can people flex their approach to work?

Rob: I would like us to start treating work like a semi- tailored suit. The basic design and structure is there, but we alter the final fit around the strengths, passions and interests of the individual.

I’ve worked with all sorts of people in all sorts of jobs, including contact centre staff, cleaners and CEOs on making work a more personalised fit. This can take as little as five minutes a day and can make a big difference to how much people enjoy their work.

People do their best work and get the most satisfaction when they have a personal connection to the tasks they undertake. Specifically, this means being able to use their competencies, strengths and skills – to do the stuff they’re good at. They also need to feel they have some element of personal control or autonomy, and finally, they need to understand, and ideally feel a connection to, the purpose of the work they’re doing.

Michelle: So simple!

Rob: It really is! And it doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Practically, it just means that when you’re looking to recruit, or asking someone to do something at work, you have an understanding of the person’s strengths, skills and preferences, and don’t ignore them.

2)    Forget the perfect match

Rob: The truth is the perfect job match doesn’t exist. But we continue to delude ourselves that it does. I’d be surprised if many people look at their job descriptions more than twice a year after starting a job. As I said earlier, I think we should be looking more flexibly when designing jobs – be clear on key tasks but let the person being asked to do the job decide how they want to deliver according to their personal strengths, passions and interests. I know you have strong views on this too.

Michelle: Absolutely – the amount of hiring managers who still want this unicorn candidate who doesn’t exist astounds me. It’s so frustrating and makes me think of Frankenstein’s monster – chop up bits of humans and mash them together in some tick-box hybrid. But there are ways of doing this. Job sharing is one of my favourites, and the expectations of the hiring manager can often be managed by taking a pros and cons approach to each candidate in a selection process.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – consider the whole human – their values, motives, intellect and behaviours, as well as their skills and experience.

3)    Show some trust

Rob: Trusting people and letting go of the reigns can be really hard, particularly at the early stages of growth, but people that feel trusted at work have a greater sense of ownership and engagement in the tasks they do, and this can make a tangible difference to the bottom line.

Michelle: And micro-managers are still a real problem in the workplace.

Rob: Absolutely.

Michelle: I’ve been micro-managed and prevented from being able to make any decisions. It made me feel miserable. It starved my creativity and motivation. We must trust people to use their own discretion and judgement in the work they do. This can be particularly hard for founders of startups and scaleups as it’s their business and their brand and reputation. But the best startups show trust and offer autonomy early on.

Rob: And for leaders this is critical. I recently heard a number of interviews with entrepreneurs and leaders. Mark Zuckerberg said one of the ways he achieved the most growth was when he stopped making so many decisions himself and trusted his people more. On some occasions this meant backing ideas he didn’t totally agree with, and not giving his people the answers to problems he knew he could fix, but letting them figure it out and develop from doing so.

People who feel trusted are more creative, innovative and motivated, and you can show trust in lots of ways: let people shape work in the way they want, tolerate and even celebrate risk-taking and mistakes, as that’s where the learning happens, and show flexibility by trusting people to deliver in the best way for them. This is often not sat in an office in front of a computer screen.

4)    Don’t think you’re a good judge of character

Michelle: It’s a fact that it’s really hard to choose humans well. In fact, I’ve been extensively trained in the selection and assessment of humans and yet I’m on husband number two!

In the workplace, problems occur because when recruiters start hiring, they don’t have any real understanding of how to accurately assess humans, so they tend to rely on shortcuts in their decision making, which include both conscious and unconscious biases. For example, you might mention on your CV or in interview that you support Newcastle United, when the recruiter is a fan of the Black Cats. This shouldn’t make a difference, but in reality, it does, and the recruiter may not even be aware of their biases.

Let’s be real for a second. The cost of hiring the wrong human into your organisation is massive. It’s around five times their annual salary! And I’ve spent a lot of years watching hiring managers make the same mistake over and over again, despite pointing out the risks to them. It’s excruciating to watch, but at the end of the day, despite advice, people rely on their own ability to choose.

Rob: Tell us about your one-woman campaign against CVs, interviews and references.

Michelle: The root cause of all our recruitment problems is the way we hire. CVs are a random list of skills and experiences, which can be written by professional CV writers and may not be 100 per cent truthful.

Interviews themselves, which are still the most popular way to hire, are biased because you can be trained to give a good interview. Naturally talkative extroverts tend to do better at them, so they aren’t particularly reliable as a standalone selection tool. And don’t get me started on the amount of time, energy and effort that goes in to references, when very few companies allow them. And a candidate is hardly likely to give you the name of someone who doesn’t like them! There are better ways to hire the right people.

Rob: Such as…

Michelle: Hirers need to be a little more scientific. At a basic level, check if a candidate can actually do the job by giving them a task to perform. Check their knowledge. For example, if they’re a developer, discuss code; if it’s a sales role, talk through hypothetical scenarios with customers, and for a more strategic role then I do enjoy a 90-day plan. But my main piece of advice is to forget competency-based questions and develop some around your company values. Very reliable psychometric tests are not as expensive as you might think, certainly compared to the cost of getting it wrong, and they can give you so much additional information to use.

My best hire came to the role straight out of school with no experience whatsoever, but during the assessment centre, he demonstrated teamwork, respect for other candidates, and leadership. He was interested in joining a large organisation, sticking in and working his way up.

He was ‘growth mindset’ personified!

And the moral of the story – don’t just hire for experience and skills alone. Hire the whole human.

5)    (Most of all), just don’t be a dick

Michelle: This one is super easy. Put simply, treat your candidates and staff with respect and kindness. The candidate experience is a two-way street, and the power of the internet is such that a terrible candidate experience can severely impact your reputation, and therefore your ability to recruit good humans.

So, in the recruitment process, treat your candidates nicely, manage their expectations, be honest with them, give them constructive and timely feedback in every single case. Don’t make them assume their application has not been successful. Tell them and tell them why!

Rob: I completely agree. Hire good people, give them some boundaries, responsibility and accountability. Then get out of their way and allow them to perform.

While you may think you do, you don’t actually have all the power, and could actually be standing in your own way.

So, just don’t be a dick!

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