Hire Self-Motivated People — the Single Smartest Thing a Hiring Manager Can Do

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 3.12.11 PMHow recruiters can become a hero of your hiring managers by dramatically reducing the number of hours that they have to spend motivating and watching their employees 

If you are a corporate manager, you already know that you routinely spend a significant portion of your time trying to motivate your employees. On average, I estimate that encouraging, cajoling, and the worst part, having to hang around just to ensure that your employees are continuously working takes up to 50 percent of the average manager’s time each week. If you don’t believe my estimate, ask a few managers to keep a work log for a few weeks if you want an accurate time for your firm. You might go a step further and ask a few of your managers if they enjoy trying to motivate and if they are good at it, because you’re likely to find that they dread every minute of it.

Fortunately you can recapture every minute of that “motivation time” if you just do one simple thing: begin recruiting and hiring self-motivated employees. These type of employees are not a myth. They are called self-motivated or intrinsically motivated people. Imagine what it would be like as a manager to have a team full of employees who not only automatically did the work that they were assigned but who would also proactively seek out new work that needed to be done. 

If you’re having doubts about the value of hiring self-motivated individuals, think back to a time in your career where you had an employee who was 100 percent self-motivated and driven. You shouldn’t have to stretch your memory to remember the pleasure of having them as part of your team because they produced so much with literally no effort on your part. Now imagine what it would be like to have an entire team of those self-motivated individuals who would free up so much of your time that you would have 2 ½ days per week extra to work on more important management tasks such as planning, forecasting, and innovating. In my experience, the best phrase to describe that situation would be “pure unadulterated joy.”

Most Managers Assume the Role as “Chief Employee Motivator”

I teach in a business school where a majority of the management classes and textbooks cover how to motivate employees. As a result, I did not consider it unusual when one of my students asked Brian Gaspar, a visiting visionary manager from Oracle, “How do you motivate your employees?” Without a second of hesitation he answered abruptly “Why would I do that? I simply hire self-motivated people.” The universal reaction from all of the students was stunning. They had simply never considered a recruiting solution to this universally difficult problem (note: his answer to a similar question “How do you set goals for your employees?” was equally as stunning. He responded, “I don’t have time for that; I make them come up with their own goals and success measures and I only modify them when it is necessary”).

Since that time I have researched the concept and I found that there are in fact self-motivated people and that it is relatively easy to find, recruit, assess, and hire them. I’ve also learned that the alternative approach of identifying motivators, measuring motivation, and applying the motivation or engagement levers is not only very difficult but is also true that most managers simply aren’t very good at it. The inability to successfully motivate their employees is one of the reasons why managers are frequently listed as the No. 1 cause of employee turnover.

What Exactly Is a Self-motivated Individual?

A self-motivated recruiting prospect, candidate, or employee is an individual with a track record of having the internal drive and motivation to begin and continue tasks without external prodding or extra rewards. You don’t have to identify why they are so driven. Just be satisfied with the fact that it is something in their character, upbringing, training, or attitude that drives them to work without any external stimulus or threat.

The Many Benefits That Come From Hiring Self-motivated People

Once you bring this recruiting approach to any hiring manager’s attention, they almost instantly appreciate its value. But if you are cynical, I have listed below some of the many benefits that come from hiring self-motivated people. Those benefits include:

  • The benefits are long-term — you could say that recruiting the self-motivated is “the gift that keeps on giving” because self-motivation is an internal character trait that is unlikely to change. That means that once they are on board as an employee, they will continue to work without needing to be prodded or watched over every year of their tenure. As a result, you need to multiply the added value of hiring a single self-motivated individual by the number of years that they are likely to stay.
  • There are no wasted hours — the primary measurable benefit of hiring self-motivated employees is that, because they continuously work hard, there are simply no wasted hours where they are paid but they are not working at their maximum. This means that there are no “slack hours” or times where they are not working at full speed. The term for describing these unproductive hours is compensation waste.”
  • Self-motivated individuals are likely to be top performers — hiring self-motivated individuals would be problematic if they underperformed on the job. Fortunately, at least one academic study from the University of Jaffna revealed a direct positive connection between self-motivation and higher on-the-job performance. Because the self-motivated are willing to put in so many uninterrupted hours at 100 percent speed, this factor alone almost assures that they will be above-average performers.
  • As employees, they don’t cost any more — because they are internally or intrinsically motivated, you don’t have to pay them significantly more than other workers with the same experience and education level. If you offer them supplemental rewards for working hard, some may even take it as a personal affront that you think that they need external rewards just to do their job.
  • The self-motivated have a high ROI — the return on investment on these self-motivated individuals is extremely high because on the cost side of the equation, they don’t require extra rewards. But they do produce high returns. First because they produce more output (because they work at 100 percent speed without interruption) but also because they free up so much expensive management time that otherwise would be spent on motivating them. Taken together that make their net ROI extremely high.
  • They are also self-motivated to succeed — most of these individuals are not only self-motivated to continuously work but they are also driven to succeed. This drive to succeed means that most of them are also problem solvers and self-directed continuous learners who know how to adapt after they have learned. That means that when you give them a complex task, you can assume that they will be fully committed to every aspect of the task and that they will complete it without any further major action on the manager’s part.
  • Others may copy them — because other workers around them will see their intensity and focus, they may cause other employees to voluntarily work just as hard. If they are visible to your customers, their visible work ethic may also impress your customers. That may result in more sales.
  • You can teach skills but you can’t teach self-motivation — firms like Southwest Airlines and Zappos are noted for their recruiting approach, which is “hire for attitude and train for skills.” I am proposing an alternative approach which is “hire the self-motivated and train for skills.” This is the recommended approach because I haven’t found any research that has shown that you can successfully train your employees to become self-motivated.
  • You won’t have to worry about employee engagement — because self-motivated workers are intrinsically driven, managers and companies won’t need to take positive actions to reinforce their already strong loyalty and commitment.

Tips on How to Recruit Self-motivated Individuals

Once you are committed to hiring self-motivated individuals, you need to work with your firm’s recruiting leaders to come up with the most effective recruiting and assessment approaches. In my experience, the best recruiting approaches for the self-motivated include:

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  • Identify them through employee referrals  generally, recruiting these individuals doesn’t take extra effort. This is because only smaller firms seem to focus on recruiting self-motivated people, and as a result, you won’t have to fight most corporations in order to attract and land them. The best recruiting approach for them (and almost all top performers) is an excellent employee referral program. My recommended approach is to proactively ask your own top performers and self-motivated employees to seek out and to refer “successful colleagues with a strong work ethic, that are self-motivated and driven.” This targeted referral approach is usually all you will need in order to recruit a sufficient quantity of self-motivated candidates.
  • Identify self-motivated individuals by using the right keywords — when you are perusing LinkedIn profiles or online resumes, you can usually find self-motivated prospects by looking for the right keywords and phrases. Eventually, develop your own list of “identifiers” but start out by looking for terms like: self-motivated, driven, strong work ethic, self-starter, hard-working, work hard/play hard, they went the extra mile, initiative, hungry, fire in the belly, they required little supervision, energetic, inspired, focused, stimulated, conscientious, highly engaged, and committed. You should begin the process by looking at the resumes and profiles of your own self-motivated employees to see which key indicators they have.
  • Place “self-motivated” in the position description — if you put being able to demonstrate that you are self-motivated as one of the job requirements, a smart candidate will make sure that evidence of that trait appears in their resume or cover letter. If you want to be proactive, specifically request applicants to directly provide supplemental evidence of self-motivation as a required part of their application package.
  • Ask them during the interview  during the interview process provide the candidates with a list of the required qualifications and ask them to force rank the top ones that most accurately describe their strengths. If self-motivated is not in the top five, be wary. You should also obviously ask them behavioral interview questions related to work situations where they performed continuously without external rewards, support, or supervision. Because self-motivation is not limited to the workplace, you should also explore areas outside of work to look for indications that they were totally committed to other difficult things like learning a language or running a marathon. And finally, be careful that you do not assume that someone who is energetic and excited during an interview will also act the same way on the job. Interviews are artificial situations where most people act completely differently for a short period of time.
  • Assess them on social media — as mentioned previously, self-motivated individuals are also generally that way outside of their job. As a result you should search their social media pages and profiles for indications that they are self-motivated. Obviously you can also ask your own social media contacts who know them to rank their self-motivation level on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • Ask their references — rather than directly asking references “Is the person self-motivated?” instead read them a set of characteristics (i.e. honest, self-motivated, highly skilled, strong communication skills, a leader, etc.) and ask them to identify the top three that best describe your candidate. You want to hire someone if self-motivated ranks as No. 1 or No. 2.
  • Revisit former employees — because being self-motivated doesn’t fade away, you should also consider former employees who you know were self-motivated. Simply contact the best that left within the last three years and ask them if they are willing to return.

Final Thoughts

If you work at a startup, hiring self-motivated individuals becomes essential to your success because most of the leaders involved in a startup do not have the skill to motivate, and even if they did, they simply don’t have the time. However, if you are a corporate manager, you will probably find that very few if any position descriptions at your firm even mention the need to be self-motivated. Because recruiting self-motivators is rare in the corporate world, you will invariably have to work with recruiting in order to develop your own process and tools.

Finally, if you are one of the many recruiting leaders and recruiters who are constantly complaining that they get little support and respect from hiring managers, developing a hiring program for the self-motivated might get you on their good side. Consider the high regard that those hiring managers will have for you if you save them two-plus days each week by simply adding a “hiring self-motivators” component to your standard hiring process. There is little doubt in my mind that this alone will make you a hero!

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.