Aligning Motivations

Startups live and die by the new hire. The marginal impact of a new hire decreases as the total number of employees increases, so young companies experience incredible volatility with good and bad hires. A startup’s first few employees will largely determine whether or not the company reaches its growth potential.

How do you make good hires? That’s a complicated question with a lot of money chasing after it. There are armies of hiring firms across every industry that try to help companies find new talent. These hiring firms employ a diversity of methods and have varying rates of success, but most seem to agree on the centrality of two factors: the potential employee’s set of skills, and some type of cultural fit between the two parties.

They are wrong. Neither of these factors is as important as making sure that the motivations of the two parties are aligned. “Cultural fit” sounds similar to “aligning motivations”–and maybe they are similar, if “cultural fit” means having common goals, working towards the same end, and being driven by a shared understanding. But if “cultural fit” means getting along with co-workers, being pleasant, or abiding by a “no asshole” policy, then it is not as important as aligning motivations.

What does aligning motivations mean?

Motivations are the driving forces that push both people and organizations. They can take on any number of different forms: money, fame, social impact, faith convictions, politics, creative expression, family obligations, world views, personal health, social stature, etc. –but they all provide reasons for acting.

These forces need to be aligned. If a startup hires a new employee with an advanced skill set and an impressive resume, but that employee winds up pushing in a different direction than everyone else, the company will suffer. The startup would have been better off hiring someone whose forces acted in the same direction, even if that person had an incomplete skill set.

Job positions provide employees with a set of constraints: you will be responsible for this; you will not be responsible for that. These constraints act as guides for the driving forces. If motivations are aligned, then the constraints actually strengthen the employee’s resolve–the position keeps the employee on track, keeps them focused, and reminds them of their reasons for acting. If things aren’t aligned, then the force of the employee’s motivations pushing against the constraining walls of the job position will create a drag on the company.

Imagine an organization as a rocket ship, its employees as rocket thrusters, and the job positions as the navigational constraints of the thrusters. The rocket ship is trying to move in a certain direction, and the only way it can do that is if it’s pushed along by its thrusters. If all of the thrusters function properly within their navigational constraints, the rocket will travel incredibly quickly. If the thrusters are trying to move against their navigational constraints in different directions, the rocket ship will slow down and a lot of fuel will be wasted. A rocket ship that wants to travel very quickly might be tempted to slap on a number of powerful new thrusters–but if the thrusters push the rocket more sideways than forwards, it will be thrown off course.

The search for and selection of new employees needs to change

Companies need to understand that the value of aligned motivations is significantly higher than the value of an impressive resume. Most employers will pay lip service to this idea, but then aren’t bold enough to put it into practice: “We admire your passion, but unfortunately there was another applicant with a more complete skill set”; “You’re headed in the right direction, but we need to see more prior experience before we’re ready to take you on.” These employers would like to put more weight on motivations, but they’re ultimately afraid to sacrifice the short-term benefit of having access to certain skills immediately. They underestimate the rapid learning curves of motivated employees, and wind up losing out over the long term.

Organizations should prioritize clearly conveying the motivations that align with their open job position. Whether it’s for a non-profit, a major corporation, a political campaign, or a startup, employers need to trust that the first step is always matching up the driving forces, not checking off necessary resume bullets.

Identifying candidates’ true motivations can be difficult (more on this later) but it’s not impossible. Getting an accurate answer out of job candidates requires committing to the question and being creative. Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb, understood this better than perhaps anyone else. During his YC Startup Class at Harvard, he described part of the interview process that the company’s earliest employees faced:

“I used to ask them a question: if you had a year left to live would you take this job? I amended it; people who say yes probably don’t like their families. So I changed it to ten years. I feel like you should use whatever time you have left to live. Whatever you want to do in those last ten years you should just do. I really want you to think about that, that was enough time for you to do something you really cared about and the answer doesn’t have to be this company. I say: fine, if what you’re meant to do is travel or start a company, just do that. Don’t come here. Go do that.”

Chesky’s question forces the issue. It makes it more difficult for candidates to operate using half-truths: “I’m really interested in the industry”; “I think that this position is a great opportunity”. It forces the two parties to acknowledge their motivations and see if they will align.

Candidates need to change the way that they approach the job search

It’s difficult for candidates to identify their true motivations. It’s easy to use vague platitudes and buzz words, and it’s harder to reflect and discern the interior forces that push towards action. Instead of trying to identify their motivations at the beginning of the process, candidates start applying for jobs first and convince themselves that they’ll figure out the rest later.

This mindset results in telling interviewers whatever they want to hear, a practice that is justified with phrases like “putting your best foot forward” and “keeping your options open.” It’s common for job hunters to completely change their resume, the narrative of their career arc, and even their explanation of their motivations over the course of a single week as they try to squeeze themselves into the shape of any empty job position they come across.

The rationale behind this behavior is that it will ultimately lead to a position of power. One of the few ways that a candidate can gain leverage and flexibility in the job hunt is to receive multiple offers. Once they have multiple possibilities on the table, they can take the time to figure out which position best aligns with their motivations.

This will not work. Continually squeezing into half-truths leaves candidates cynical and unsure of themselves, and the process erodes their ability to recognize their motivations. People already find it difficult to discern interior driving forces; intentionally crafting a passable-but-not-entirely-accurate set of motivations only makes things harder. Candidates need to first be honest with themselves, and then be honest with the organizations they interview with.


Below is a condensed explanation of why the ideas presented in this essay are especially important for startups:

I = ( ρªº × N ) / T


I = impact to the organization

N = new applicant variable

T = total number of employees in the organization

ρªº = motivation correlation coefficient, resulting in a number between -1 and 1

note that:

ρªº = Cov( a, o ) / ( σª × σº )

Cov( a, o ) = covariance of a: applicant’s motivations, and o: organization’s motivations

Cov( a, o ) = ∑ [( a – µª ) × ( o – µº )] / ( n – 1 )

µª = mean of applicant’s motivations

µº = mean of organization’s motivations

σª = standard deviation of applicant’s motivations

σº = standard deviation of organization’s motivations

σ = √( 1 / n ) × ∑ ( x – µ )²

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