Hiring For Motivation, Attitude, and Traits: Not Just Experience

HR & Safety

Experience may not be as critical as other factors in predicting on-the-job success

By Allan L. Polak

Business leaders know the importance of hiring the right people. A great hire can take your company to new levels of success. A bad hire, on the other hand, can drag your business down, demand a great deal of time and attention, and have a nasty ripple effect on your other employees: and your customers.

Yet much hiring is done haphazardly with a lot of guesswork, bias, and “feel” that is not at all predictive of a new employee’s job success.

How, then, can you increase the likelihood that your next new hire will be the best person for the job: and the best fit for your company? When it comes to making smart hiring decisions, I encourage my clients to S-E-L-E-C-T.


Talk to references. Ask what a candidate has actually done. What has she done well? What has she struggled with?

Realize that some skills are highly transferable. Even if a candidate has not performed a job or task identical to your need, she could be using a relevant skill extensively in another aspect of her life. For example, if you need someone who will be highly organized and good at time management, ask about and listen for aspects of a candidate’s background that demanded that skill, such as volunteer activities, juggling life demands, or performing certain tasks in a prior job.


Experience matters, of course, but many hiring managers place too much importance on it. They may believe someone with ten years’ experience doing a job similar to the one they’re seeking to fill is sure to do the job well.

Length of experience alone, however, is no guarantee of effective job performance. If a candidate has ten years of experience, did he work for seven different companies during that time? Why might that be? Did he learn the job in the first year and then just do it exactly the same way for the next nine? What does that tell you? Is the candidate simply interested in continually doing the same kind of work in the same way? Or will he be someone who strives to improve and seek new ways to help your company succeed?


Whether or not a candidate is an eager learner is a powerful predictor of success in many jobs. Eager learners will likely take direction better, notice ways to improve processes or address customer needs, and be more willing to collaborate with other employees.

Ask a potential hire about the most exciting thing she has learned over the past year or two. Assess how relevant her answer is to the job you are seeking to fill. Ask the candidate what she most wants to learn in the job during her first three to six months and why. Such queries will yield powerful predictive data.

Emotional Intelligence

Almost all jobs involve interaction with other people. Sometimes interaction is part of a job, and in other cases: customer service, for example: it is the job.

Although intelligence (IQ) is a key factor in determining how well a candidate can master information and perform key tasks, emotional intelligence, or EQ, is critical in determining interpersonal and other “soft” skills.

Once you have two or three candidates who have about the same intellectual horsepower, the real predictor and separator may well be their emotional intelligence. A candidate’s EQ is an important predictor of how well he will cope with stress, handle demanding customers, control his own behavior, interact with the boss, and perform in many other aspects of a job.

Core Motivations

Everybody is motivated. The big question is to do what? Even someone you may perceive as quite lazy is motivated: to keep life simple and avoid expending energy, especially when it comes to work.

You want to hire someone who is naturally motivated to do the kind of job you are seeking to fill. Such a person will bring more energy to a task, be willing to work through barriers and challenges, work more effectively with tough customers and demanding managers or coworkers, and be much more likely to go the extra mile when necessary.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you hire somebody smart or with whom you have good “chemistry” that you can motivate her to enjoy doing things she is not interested in. People succeed at what they like to do, not what you want them to like to do.


Smart, motivated people can learn skills, but traits are what make people unique: and they typically don’t change much over a lifetime. Having a “thin skin” versus a “thick skin” when criticized or evaluated, for example, is a trait. A job candidate with a thick skin will be able to handle direct or even harsh criticism much better than someone with a thin skin. The latter may carry the pain of an experience around with him for weeks, months, and even years. And it will color his expectations of and interactions with the person involved for a long time.

Allan Polak is president of ALP Consulting Resources in West Hartford. He can be reached at info@alpconsultingresources.com.

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