Hiring for Attributes: Will That Be Motivated, Highly Motivated or Obsessed?

July 15, 2011
It was the spring of 1956 and William Shockley was finally getting the chance to do things ‘his way’. With a freshly minted Nobel Prize for his contributions in inventing the transistor, Shockley launched Shockley Semiconductor is his home town of Palo Alto, California. The well-funded start-up had its choice of the finest technical minds in the world all anxious to develop and commercialize its founder’s ground-breaking theories and ideas. Such was the caliber of the team put together by Shockley that one observer described it as “the greatest collection of electronic genius ever assembled”. Yet despite its vast promise, Shockley Semiconductor never took flight. In less than eighteen months the firm’s key technical staff had resigned citing Shockley’s ‘peculiar’ ideas about motivating people, his obsessive tendencies, paranoia and insecurities as their reasons for leaving. Among Shockley’s most prominent alumni, who he preferred to call the “the traitorous eight”, were the future founders of such notable firms as Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Though Shockley is still considered one of the fathers of Silicon Valley (the man who brought silicon to Silicon Valley), he never returned to the start-up stage.

In more than a dozen biographies, iconic Apple Computer founder Steven Jobs is consistently described with such colorful terms as genius, narcissist, visionary, obsessive, control freak, and frequently, ‘a-hole’. One writer has stated, “Jobs has taken his interests and peculiar personality traits and turned them into the hallmarks of a most remarkable career”. Concurrently admired, feared, adored, and loathed, Jobs has created a massive multi-billion dollar global cult of personality and capability, a magnet for high performers, with few parallels in the world of technology.

The attributes of successful, and unsuccessful, leaders is a never ending source of fascination. From the bookstore tripe revealing the secrets of the rich and famous to the most august academic literature, a wide range of attributes regularly surface as contributing, if not key, to success. These include such staples as intelligence, motivation, focus, commitment, dedication, discipline, character, empathy, resilience, confidence and on and on and on. Not surprisingly, these attributes are sprinkled generously across the requisites lists of almost every executive job description. Organizations pan for these golden qualities and hire by weight. And like most things considered precious, when it comes to so-called positive attributes, organizations assume they cannot have too much of a good thing.

Inconveniently, attributes can as easily assault as assuage the hiring pallet. They interact to amplify and at times offset each other. Some attributes have inverse rather than positive relationships while others manifest themselves as assets only to become liabilities when too pronounced. Rather than being the simple sum of positive attributes, high performers are often distinguished by the excess of certain qualities and the almost total absence of others. And finally, social norms strongly shape and shift our view of attributes, making many both positive and negative depending on the lens and era through which they are viewed.

Using ‘motivation’ as a single illustrative attribute, this paper provides a glimpse into the perils of viewing too much of a good thing, as a good thing.

Motivation

Oracle looks for a high degree of motivation, even compulsiveness in prospective job applicants. The high growth nature of the company requires a manager to have people who are so demanding of themselves that they simply have to get the job done, and get it done right.” The Oracle Edge

Organizations treasure high performers, those standard bearers of productivity and excellence that mere mortals can only struggle to follow. High performance however, is more than a simple genetic game of chance in which intellect and native ability are the grand prizes. Instead, as the author of Talent is Overrated argues, high performance is an amalgam of purposeful and deliberate practice, constant feedback, impactful mentoring and teaching, and the personal belief that one’s destiny is self-controlled. It is also the product of a drive to excel combined with the motivation to focus, persevere and endure. It is this motivational energy and the willingness to pay a toll for excellence that separates the few from the many.

As an attribute, motivation is usually conceptualized as the impetus of human energy, the well-source of the all important will to succeed. It is also the engine that powers behavior incorporating a mishmash of components and adjacent qualities such as drive, commitment, dedication, and resilience that are required to persevere and overcome obstacles. And it is motivation that buttresses the willingness to sacrifice other things, including more immediate gratification, in order to achieve one’s goals. Many writers describe motivation as a mind/body dynamic in which the body is the fulcrum of human energy, the centre core that stimulates action and supports a motivated state. Thus, among the more common metaphors for motivation are physiologically-based phrases such as "fire in the belly", "heart's not in it", "gut-check", and "the mind is willing but the flesh is weak".

Finally, motivation is best understood when broken down into its key elements. These include direction (ie. what an individual is motivated to do), effort (ie. how much of an individual’s psychological/physical capacity is devoted to the behavior) and persistence (ie. for how long can the individual maintain the effort). As the fuel for high performance motivation matters, and to most organizations, the matter of motivation is akin to happiness…..you can neither be too happy nor too motivated.

Whether individuals are born with it, have it lovingly cultivated or forced unpleasantly upon them, motivation is a key contributor to success. Organizations know this and expend an inordinate amount of effort trying to guide, cajole, sometimes bully individuals and groups into becoming ever-more motivated. They wrestle to understand motivation’s intrinsic and extrinsic underpinnings and play with a myriad of reward, punishment and cultural systems in order to optimize it. When hiring, organizations probe to gauge and measure the motivational fires that burn within candidates giving strong preference to those that appear to burn brightest.

Finally, it is not only organizations that long for a motivated population. In explaining the ‘miracle’ of Israel’s highly successful tech sector, the best-selling book Start-Up Nation points to “a cultural core built on a rich stew of aggressiveness and team orientation, isolation and connectedness, and on being small and aiming big”. Nations around the world tinker with their industrial, immigration and taxation policies seeking to spur or unleash similar wealth creating motivational forces in order to foster ever-more dynamic economies.

Obsession

There’s a difference between being obsessed and motivated.” Mark Zuckerberg in the movie Social Network

The earliest use of the word obsession was applied to war. To obsess a city was to surround it without possessing it. Over time the word obsessed came to be applied to individuals who were being besieged by spirits or demons though not controlled or possessed by them.

While demonic and battlefield references have faded, the fascination with obsession has not. The Canadian military official convicted of committing heinous acts against women in eastern Ontario was described as obsessive and compulsive in the manner by which he painstakingly pursued and documented his victims and crimes. Many pundits attribute the election of Toronto-mayor Rob Ford to his “singular obsession with cost-cutting”. In a recent biography of AIG founder Hank Greenberg the author argues that “Greenberg’s obsession with minimizing risk amounted to a rare form of genius”. Constitutional reform in Canada was termed “Trudeau’s magnificent obsession’ in one biography of the former Prime Minister. Variations of the word serve as the title of scores of films, television programs, songs and albums. There is a rich tradition of literature from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein of scientists driven to madness by the obsessive nature of their work. We regularly read of people who are obsessed with all manner of money, sex, celebrity, plastic surgery, and even food. And Calvin Klein’s fragrance ‘Obsession’ is consistently among the top 10 selling fragrances in the world.

Obsession is medically defined as the excessive preoccupation of the mind, of being consumed by some thing, goal, thought or person; a pathology of frequency and intensity. Obsession is a self-regulatory condition, one clinically characterized by the recognition of the obsessive thoughts but the inability to arrest them. These may be thoughts about real-life concerns or products of an individual’s mind which that person must be actively trying to suppress or control with other actions. Obsessive thoughts often lead to compulsive behaviors such as cleaning, checking and counting.

An obsessive personality is somewhat schizophrenically considered an enabler to success, a type of mental illness and a cause of mental illness. It is an enabler when conceptualized as a sort of hyper-motivation, an intense focus upon a task, problem-set or goal. A great number of successful scientists, artists, athletes and business people openly describe their personalities as obsessive. At the same time however, obsession is also a form of mental illness in so far as the self is observing though unable in many instances to affect the obsessed self. In other words, the self cannot stop itself. Finally, focusing excessively on an object or being singular in attention can be considered dysfunctional and much has been written about obsession leading to other, more serious psychological or medical conditions. At the very least, preoccupation precludes other thoughts, behaviors and even judgments and thus whatever benefits may accrue to being obsessive are often offset by accompanying costs. In a recent book titled Jet Age, author Sam Howe Verhovek describes Frank Whittle, the brilliant British military pilot and engineer who began patenting jet designs in 1930. Whittle was so focused on his work that he sniffed Benzedrine to stay awake, popped tranquilizers to then sleep and shriveled to 127 pounds before dying. Similarly, aviation designer Geoffrey de Havilland was so, shall we say ‘dedicated’ to his research that he worked uninterrupted even after two of his own sons died testing his planes.

In a model of medicine that sees the body/mind in balance, any significant weighing towards one or the other can be considered a pathology. In his book Obsession, Lennard Davis suggests the line in the sand is when an individual experiences ‘marked distress’. Unfortunately, as Davis points out, marked distress is often socially defined and this is where obsession often enters the realm of the beholder’s eye. If your habit of lining things up meticulously is seen by others as odd, you may well be distressed by what you do. If, on the other hand, it is the sign of a master bricklayer, a craftsman or even accountant, lauded as a perfectionist, you may not. Similarly, if focusing and persevering with a problem, profession or sport leads to breakthroughs, awards, wealth and fame, it is altogether likely that the individual in question will not experience marked distress. If those same qualities exact what societal norms suggest is a toll in other parts of their lives, or are applied to pursuits deemed undesirable, the net perception of that person by others may be less than positive, impacting on the individual self-view. Thus, when Tiger Woods hits balls by the bucket, day after day, in preparation to travel the world from tournament to tournament, he is applauded for the motivation, dedication, and focus with which he pursues his profession. Many would go so far as to point to these very attributes as instrumental to his success as a golfer. But when Tiger Woods deliberately pursues extra-marital sexual relations, with equal dedication, focus, and motivation, in seemingly every city to which he travels, he is labeled (and after being caught labels himself) a compulsive sex addict in need of treatment and perhaps salvation.

Whether a person’s obsessive tendencies are lauded, laughed at, lambasted or medically treated is a function of the tendency itself, its severity and society’s perceptions of it through the lenses of ever-changing social standards. An obsessive personality therefore is a gift and a curse, an asset and a liability, a badge of honor and a scarlet letter.

Too Much of a Good Thing

I’m anal retentive. I’m a workaholic. I have insomnia. And I’m a control freak. That’s why I’m not married. Who could stand me?” Madonna

Attributes cut both ways. When Madonna laments her track record in matters of the heart she unwittingly provides insight into her success as an artist, entertainer and global icon. Similarly, when former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is praised for the manner in which she served as a decisive, unrelenting agent of change across wide swaths of British society, someone is usually nearby chiding her for being infuriatingly self-assured, condescending, arrogant, moralistic and ruthless.

Attributes also have multiple dimensions in the workplace. When executives rise to the pinnacle of their professions, they are applauded for their motivation, work ethic, and willingness to ‘pay the price’ of personal sacrifice. According to one study, this price includes an average of 60-70 hours of work per week, a number that increases to over 100 hours for Nobel Prize winners. Yet for successful executives who are judged overly single-minded in the pursuit of their careers, personal sacrifice mutates into a risk factor and they are assailed for being obsessive workaholics in need of a cure, treatment, or simply a ‘life’. Second, as the amplitude of any given attribute increases it diminishes the likelihood of hearing attributes at the other end of the spectrum. Thus, executives who are highly strategic, creative and intuitive are unlikely to boast a high attention to detail or process/operational orientation. The reverse is also true. Finally, individuals who exhibit attributes that serve an organization well in one area are unlikely to be equipped with internal governors to idle those attributes in areas they are not valued. For example, executives with the moxy, people skills and self-confidence to challenge competitive and market conventions are unlikely to sheepishly conform to behavioral and cultural conventions in the office. Many, many similar examples can be cited.

Organizations are left to their own devices to make sense of it all as there are few resources to guide them on the amplitude or pitch of attributes needed for optimal performance, how to measure this, and at what point assets morph into liabilities. There are few instruments that gauge when confidence becomes arrogance and humility becomes the insecurity that underlies indecisiveness. Competency models provide little assistance as to when taking pride in one’s work becomes conceit, being principled becomes stubbornness, being aggressive becomes obnoxiousness, and an attention-to-detail becomes nitpicking. And perhaps most frustrating, few books explain why greatness is so often found at the extremes where certain attributes are intensely concentrated and others absent altogether. Richard Whitcomb is viewed by many as the most significant aeronautical engineer in the second half of the 20th century. Though undoubtedly of genius intellect, Whitcomb’s mindboggling array of innovations was also the product of an impressive work ethic and motivational drive. In fact, he was so focused on his work that for extended periods he chose to live and sleep in his laboratory. As Whitcomb’s nephew stated in a recent obituary, “Uncle Dick was a bit of a character. He rarely came out to spend time with family. He rarely showered for that matter”.

Despite efforts to conceptualize them as the simple sum of attributes, personalities have an emergent quality. Attributes combine to exhibit characteristics not obvious from their individual properties. They interact, are amplified, cancel, even distort to wondrous and at times disturbing effect. This compromises attempts to compartmentalize attributes as discrete qualities that can be sorted, summed and hired against. Furthermore, exceptions will always mock attempts to be prescriptive using yesterday’s hiring success as today’s best practice, infuriating the myth that prediction and control are possible.

Tempting as it may be to seek refuge in the comfort of simple, somewhat superficial paradigms, organizations should not expect good hiring decisions to await their arrival. Matching people with companies will always be laborious work best tackled with tools such as preparation, process, data, diligence, and judgment. As Intel’s Andy Grove once cautioned, “No statues will be carved for corporate leaders who charge off on the wrong side of a complex decision”. Nor will they be carved for those who embrace the view that when it comes to positive attributes, you cannot have too much of a good thing.

About The Author

Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading executive search firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Mr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.