April 14, 2015

Is Skill or Motivation the Biggest Predictor of Job Success?

CheerOne of the most common hiring quandaries in which recruiters may find themselves is whether to choose raw, outright talent or motivation. Rather than being able to neatly choose between two candidates with similar levels of talent and motivation, recruiters often have to decide between a candidate with higher skill and lower motivation and a candidate with lower skill but incredibly high motivation levels. In making the decision, the recruiter has to decided whether skill level or motivation will have the biggest impact on new hire success. And so, we have to ask: which is it?

The simplest and most reliable way to assess which is the best predictor of success in your own organization is to do your own big data analysis to see whether motivation levels have historically delivered better results than skills — or vice versa — in your workforce. I do urge all employers to do this: take a look at your lower skilled and highly motivated employees and compare them to your higher skilled and not so highly motivated hires to see who gives better returns to the business over a relevant time period.

If, however, you don’t have the ability to carry out such an analysis in house, you might be interested in some of the third-party research on this subject.

For example, this Leadership IQ study found that just 11 percent of new hires fail because they lacked technical skills or talent. Most new hires actually fail because they lack motivation, temperament, and/or the willingness to learn.

Sure, these findings suggest that motivation has a bigger impact on success than skill level, but I’ve found another study from the same organization that, funnily enough, suggests the contrary: according to this study, in 42 percent of organizations, lower performers were actually more engaged and motivated than higher performers. Middle-ranking and higher performers tended to feel disconnected from their job and unmotivated.

So, what’s happening here? It seems that ineffective performance management systems are in play in many organizations, and these ineffective systems allow self-deluded, motivated low performers to coast without punishment, which makes them feel content and engaged. In these same organizations, high performers carry the load without being recognized, causing them to lose their motivation and become less engaged.

This study suggests that skill may be a more important driver of performance than motivation, since high performers deliver even when they are less motivated than low performers. So, where do we go from here?

It seems we can’t neatly choose one or the other, skills or motivation. We need to move to the middle ground and accept the significant value of both motivation and skill level as predictors of future success. This fact is illustrated by this study on early career success of MBA graduates. The study found that a combination of both high cognitive ability and motivation is significantly associated with early career success. MBAs who were deemed to be both mentally skilled and highly motivated earned higher salaries, had more rapid pay increases, and received more promotions early in their careers.

This brings us back to the original interview quandary: trying to choose between a lower skilled, but highly motivated candidate and a higher skilled, but lower motivated candidate. Should you prioritise skill over motivation level? It probably depends on your environment.

If you have an organization that actively encourages and supports learning, you may get a good return from hiring a highly motivated, but less skilled individual. It’s likely that, within a short amount of time, you will have a highly engaged and highly skilled employee.

On the other hand, if your organization lacks the time and/or resources to actually deliver a nurturing learning environment, you may find a greater return from hiring highly skilled, but not very motivated applicants.

Read more in Employee Performance

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.