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People produce their best work when it interests them

I used to played a lot of basketball in school.

Basketball is a fast-paced game that embeds a lot of strategy. A team of five on each side can come up with numerous ways to score within a 24 second time frame. Everyone on the team has a role - the point guard, the power forward, and the center. Street basketball sometimes involved three-a-side on a half court, and given my height I was always told to play the center position.

The center position was important. When you are on the offense, the center serves as a back-up to do a rebound if the point guard's shot is off or if the power forward needs support while doing the lay-up. When you are on the defence, the job of the center is to be the sturdiest pillar under the net, blocking every shot that comes your way and turning the play over.

But I hated being the center. It was a boring position: standing under the net, constantly looking up and pivoting around a 1-2 meter radius. Sure enough I could get the rebound most of the time but there was not much fun in catching the ball and then passing it on almost immediately.

I always preferred doing the layups, occasionally shooting from the 3-point line, mainly for variety. I would sometimes get told off for not staying in my position. I wasn’t trying to be ‘showy’ or anything, but simply because I enjoyed the momentum and dynamic game play as compared to relatively standing still.


This ‘rigidity’ took out a lot of the fun in competitive basketball playing and I eventually found my way in athletics. Much later on, I realised that a lot of school teams select their center positions primarily based on height. The idea was that even if that person had no ball-sense but had the height, he could be trained to do what he was supposed to do.


 

The running of businesses, especially for employees, unlike a basketball game, may not be that enjoyable. But like basketball, companies need to assemble a spread of people based on different functions and positions - rainmakers, executors, administrators and grunts.


Last week, I had someone in the office telling me how frustrated she was over doing something she felt was unnecessary and that the exercise yielded no value.

“I don’t like what I do, but I have no choice.”

Many employees don’t like their day jobs but a lot of them in this category feel disgruntled primarily because the work is not fun, they don’t see the point of what they are doing and often perceive it as stuff that needs to be done in order to report to the higher-ups. Truthfully so.

This employee was the grunt of the firm.

And despite her lack of experience, she was generally good what she does - accountable, hardworking, and diligent. She does what she is told and sometimes goes the extra mile to get it done even on a weekend. But now and then she wants to be able to see the big picture, the significance of what she is doing and be able to learn something in the whole process. But the reality is that, sometimes the things we do at work that seemingly make no sense need to be done because only those with real skin in the game says so.

And then there are also others who say: “This wasn’t what I signed up for.


What were you expecting? Regular hours, good pay, nice employees, a role model for a line manager, and a systematic process of acquiring the skills on the job? Wake up. So many fresh graduates come in expecting colleagues and line managers to handhold them at every stage of the job and they forget that:

The objective of the firm is not to train you for your role, but to bring in profits Training is but only part of that objective.

Why would any company pay you a salary to just show up and learn?


The purpose of any training (if any) is purely to equip you with the necessary skills to the extent you are able to use that to create value. Absurdly, even after training, many employees still instinctively choose to “run” to their bosses or higher ups for help whenever they hit a roadblock rather than try to constructively find a solution to the issue. Bosses are not there to help you solve your problems, it's more the reverse.


Such is the reality of work.


I don’t like playing the center position but the team simply needs someone there to just hold the line. Don’t get me wrong that all employees should die for their organizations (metaphorically). But sometimes a small nudge in the mindset can change the perspective of how people can approach work and carry on their day-to-day jobs.


As part of any job, sometimes it is unavoidable that you have to do the things that you don’t like to do. Because a lot of employees don’t condition themselves to seeing things this way, they often get upset, feel unappreciated and eventually leave.


But employee attrition can go down like a negative spiral and be a big problem for companies.

 

Managers can obviously do a lot more to understand the attitude and personalities of their employees. Too much focus is placed on hiring for skills rather than personality. Sure enough, a lot of companies include “cultural fit” as part of their hiring criteria but in today’s context, remote working and high employee turnover is increasingly becoming the norm.


In the past, “right fit” means placing someone in the organization who would ideally jive with the rest of the team. In companies whereby departments are constantly being refreshed with new faces, it can be difficult to foster any real camaraderie.

I once overheard a senior colleague in an interview asking a potential hire:

“Are you prepared to work long hours?”

It got me curious because I wondered what response he was expecting to hear.


If the candidate gave a brutal reply insisting on doing regular hours, would his honest preference imply a lousy fit for the company? And if he/she answered ‘yes’, wouldn’t that be pretentious? As hiring managers, what are we really trying to look for in a candidate's response when we throw them questions like these?

Just as all basketball teams want the tallest, fastest and the best shooters, all companies want the most hardworking, the most resourceful, and innovative people (ideally at a fraction of the cost). In a certain extreme, companies simply want corporate slaves working in a manufacturing sweat shop. This is mathematically speaking, solving for the highest P&L but does nothing to improve corporate culture.

To make it worse, the Internet has also virtually created a 24-hour work day, resulting in a term called neurofacturing, which basically refers to the modern white-collared jobs involving technology and brainpower. The Atlantic has an interesting article that talks about why people spend all day at the office working.

Do candidates who claim that they are willing to embrace the long hours make better employees?


Companies tend to be somewhat myopic when hiring, focusing on either the highest "neurofacturing capacity" or filling immediate human resource gaps such that they almost always overlook the candidate’s interests and ambitions. After all, why does it matter?


Just think about it: How many of the interviewers that you’ve met previously really took a genuine interest in your long-term career aspirations? Aside from the long working hours which seem to be mostly a given now, most of the questions directed at you probably test for experience and skills: “Can you tell me how to value a company?”, “Can you do this?”, “What have you done before that convince us you can do this?” - the idea is that if someone has had success in his or her previous stints, there is a good probability that they will be able to replicate this in their future roles. But this is not always the case.


“History helps us calibrate our expectations, study where people tend to go wrong, and offers a rough guide of what tends to work. But it is not, in any way, a map of the future.”

- Morgan Housel


If companies could focus on aligning corporate goals with the ambitions of their potential employees, imagine how much impact that could potentially have on productivity and culture.


Instead of searching for the best match of skills and experience in the relevant industry, one could consider placing more focus on hiring for interests and personality. For example, someone who enjoys talking about everything under the sun could be a fish in water for a sales role. A perfectionist could be a good managerial hire for a public relations role whereby collaterals need to be impeccably produced. Or someone who has previously attempted a failed start up could also be the best choice for a corporate venture role as he would be prudent and sensitive to the nuances of launching a new product, having gone through it first-hand.


Hard technical skills can be trained but interests and unique experiences remain more deeply ingrained in a person’s DNA.


Besides, people generally don’t like to be told what to do because it makes them feel like they are not in control. Instead of free will, they feel like they have been given no choice even though they might have been happy to go along. [Jonah Berger]


People produce their best work when it interests them. Companies use incentives such as money, hoping to channel and convert some of these personal interests into their commercial interests.


No fault in that. But to do so requires some work in understanding what drives these people.


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