It seems obvious: Somebody who loves their job and is motivated will be a better asset than somebody who is not motivated and may even perform better than somebody less motivated but more skilled. So why does skill evaluation still dominate the recruiting process for most companies?

Motivation is transient, skills are persistent

Somehow when we start thinking about the motivation of candidates, we forget that we’re often more motivated to work on Wednesday than first thing on Monday or at the end of the day on Friday. Even naturally “highly motivated” people have ebbs and flows in their motivation both in short- and long-term cycles. There’s a temptation to forget these realities and act as if the motivation level of candidates is a static metric that when hired high will remain high indefinitely. Spoiler alert– It won’t.

This doesn’t mean testing for motivation is wasted time. It’s certainly unlikely that somebody who is unmotivated during the recruiting process would suddenly become a beacon of motivation once hired and a candidate who is motivated by drivers which the company cannot address is probably going to be a poor fit. Avoiding such situations is valuable but seeking only inherently highly motivated candidates is also not the silver bullet for hiring.

Skills take time to develop, motivation is more easily manufactured

It took me years to develop the knowledge and experience enabling me to write this blog post. I’ll spend a few hours in total over the course of a day or two writing it in between emails, phone calls, and other work tasks. However, if somebody had offered me $1,000 to drop everything and finish it in an hour, I would have found a way to get it done much quicker. Ten years ago, you could have offered me the same $1,000 and I would have been equally motivated to produce something in the same shortened time, however, I can guarantee you it wouldn’t have been of the same quality as what you’re reading. I simply didn’t have the knowledge then regardless of the motivation I might have had.

While not always cost effective or appropriate, most people can be motivated to do most (reasonable) things, but you can’t make them perform those tasks well if they don’t have the right skills. In some cases, it may be more cost effective for a company to hire and train easily motivated people than to motivate already well-trained people, but it will almost never be as quick.

The historical social contract is for employees to provide skills and employers to provide motivation

In short, this social contract just makes sense. However, the converse situation does exist. In unpaid internships, employees (instead called interns) create their own motivation while employers provide the skills and experience through existing employees creating learning opportunities for the interns. While this works for some people in short-term situations, it becomes unsustainable for the employee and risky for the employer (if they become too dependent on the unpaid employee who might choose to go get paid for their skills).

There’s a natural optimization of risk when a company hires people who have the skills and capabilities to be successful. Companies who know their employees can execute their work, focus their risk on their ability to motivate the employee. Likewise, employees who can do the job only take their risk on the company successfully motivating them. For both parties, this risk is reduced by a base salary and upside is accessed through additional compensation contingent on performance (in some form, monetary or otherwise) and job security.

So, what should you look for when recruiting?

Leaders fear hiring people who despite being able to do the job simply don’t or don’t do it to expected quality level due to low motivation. Their lack of motivation can become contagious and the effort to extract greater contributions can become an intense burden on leadership, distracting leaders from other priorities. Somehow the recruiting process needs to mitigate the risk of landing in such situations, right? Yes, but not by testing motivation levels directly. Recruiting should instead test the potential to motivate.

Somebody who is highly motivated by the size of their paycheck is more likely to excel in a company that can afford to make large cash payments to high performing employees than a company which cannot. Similarly, somebody who cares less about cash and more about social impact would be better suited to a company whose mission aligns with their personal views regardless of the depth of that company’s pockets. Companies need to know that they are positioned to be ABLE to motivate the people they hire, not that they will not NEED to motivate them.

Furthermore, it is important to know that once motivation is achieved – either by having an innately motivated employee or by implementing an effective incentive program – the employee will be able to succeed. It is therefore critically important to understand the skills of individual AND that individual’s propensity to learn and develop new skills (if relevant to the job) regardless of their level of inherent motivation.

Embrace your incentive plan’s role in motivating people

Your compensation plan is not something predefined by a predecessor in your organization or a template followed by most of your industry. It is not something that once defined can’t be reconstituted to improve. It is a strategic tool designed to maximize value for both company and employee and create alignment of interests. It is usually easier and more fruitful to spend time optimizing your incentive program than to search for people who won’t need a quality incentive plan to be motivated. (They exist, but there aren’t many.)

In summary, there’s nothing wrong with focusing your recruiting process on finding the right skills in candidates. Paying attention to motivation should also be part of that recruiting process but searching for individuals so self-motivated that the incentive program will not matter is unlikely the best path to follow. Instead, understand the levers that will influence your candidates’ motivation and make sure that the business will be comfortable working with those levers to motivate that person once hired.