February 16, 2011

Recruiter Lessons from Valentine’s Day and Plato

“Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it’s not going to get the business.”—Warren Buffett

“We are all special cases.”—Albert Camus, Nobel Laureate

“The only way to be special in this culture is to think you aren’t.”—M.Moffa

“A man always remembers his first love with special tenderness, but after that he begins to bunch them.”—H. L. Mencken, who could have been describing how recruiters in a busy office feel after a while on the job

PLATONIC LOVE/Image: Michael Moffa

If you forgot to give your special someone special flowers, a special card or special chocolates for Valentine’s Day, forget about it twice, because it’s too late and there’s always next year.

However, it is not too late to extract some useful recruiting lessons, including the outrageously counter-intuitive idea that it may not be such a good idea to ever try to make anyone—job candidates, clients and associates, and even your Valentine’s Day “special someone”—feel “special” in the way they or you (think you) want. This warning will be especially relevant if you or they have selected the “wrong” way to be or feel “special”.

Feeling Special vs. Special Feeling

Also, despite their and your believing feeling “special” is actually what is making them happy, the real primary source of their delight may be something else—something far more commonplace, ordinary and “universal”. Recognizing that fact and what that something is may be as useful as it can be enlightening for you, the recruiter.

These Valentine’s Day “lessons”, to be amplified below, can be, as a preliminary orientation, summarized this way:

  • Wanting to be or encouraging someone to be special can be a big mistake, depending on which of two forms of “specialness” is desired—what I shall call “comparative/competitive specialness” vs. “contrast/collaborative specialness” (more on this, below). Put simply, there is one way of being special that is psychologically, socially and professionally better than its alternative (although neither is really necessary).
  • In many “special” situations feeling wonderfully ordinary is actually the true dominant emotion, irrespective of however special the person, the moment or the behavior may seem, be believed or be said to be. That kind of delightfully commonplace feeling takes many “universal” forms and occupies the pinnacle of human experience.
  • “Special feeling” must not be conceptually confused with “feeling special”, despite the overwhelming temptation to let that happen. When a woman has a special feeling about a Valentine’s Day box of chocolates, she will be most vulnerable to interpreting that “feeling something special” as being conceptually exactly the same as “feeling special”. Just as going somewhere special, e.g., Angkor Wat,  doesn’t make us special, having a special feeling also doesn’t make us special.

To these, there can be added a third Valentine’s Day lesson for recruiters, with credit due in large measure to Plato (to be discussed below)::

  • The less desirable goal and form of specialness—the “comparative/competitive” version—can and should be replaced with the quest for “perfection” of self and feeling, for attainment of the “Ideal” (in a sense very similar to Plato’s, discussed below).

Now, for the details.

Main Valentine’s Day Recruitment Lesson: Forget “Special”

The average couple thinks the Valentine’s Day gifts given and gotten are “special” tokens of affection on a “special day” for a “special someone”—although the pragmatic, hierarchy-sensitive Japanese have a special category of Valentine’s chocolates for people they must, but do not really want to give chocolates to: Bosses, supervisors, etc. They call this “giri choco”, meaning “duty chocolates”.

Here in the West, on the other hand and side of the world, it seems most gift-givers (think they) are following their hearts and concepts of specialness in aiming their long-stemmed rose love-darts.

Such manifestations of “specialness” are not confined to romantic holidays and birthdays. Celebrating or generating feelings of “specialness” as a useful tool or as a natural process is equally commonplace in everyday recruiting. For example, both recruiter and candidate may feel or allude to being “special” or feeling something special upon sealing the job placement deal. Or the employer client may, intentionally or otherwise, be made to feel “special” in some way, e.g., in having special after-hours access to a recruiter.

Contrary to these appearances, what is often really being felt or should be felt is something very different from feeling special: It is, as suggested above, feeling delightfully ordinary.

Triggering the Hard-Wired Darwinian Universals

Instead of or in addition to the reported feeling of “specialness”, the truly primary emotion often is or should be one that is “universal”—and therefore somehow not so special.

What this means can best be illustrated by an example or two: Recall moments at a place like the majestic Grand Canyon as a Raphaelesque sunset swept you and the day away; the rush felt on completing a prized job placement; the tear-squeezing laughter induced by a fall-off-your-chair joke; the tantalizing after-taste and texture of a Valentine’s chocolate melting in your mouth; the unspoken love in the first gaze between mother and newborn; and the spoken love between gazing, transfixed lovers.

Even though in every instance the “natural” reaction is to label these “special moments”, because they are relatively micro-rare in one’s own life, the fact is that what makes them so powerful is that they are anything but macro-special: They are the universal, powerful human responses to virtually universally experienced moments, everywhere and always, even if uncommon in our individual micro-lives.

Even in those special cases and situations featuring a special venue or occasion, the more powerful and ecstatic the feeling, the more likely it is to be a universal human response, much as the hundreds of whooping laughs at any Eddie Murphy live show have been or as the suffusing, enveloping delight of untold generations of mothers identically cradling their babies attests.

Despite the evident cold-hearted side of “natural selection”, Darwinian evolution is very democratic: it rarely bestows the capacity for such fundamentally important and exciting responses on only a few “special” people among our otherwise presumptively special species. To believe such a capacity is rare is to risk confusing and conflating scarcity in one’s own life with the superiority of that life. And even if “feeling something special” is in any sense special, it would remain a huge logical leap—that many do unwarrantedly make—to “feeling special”.

So, when you, wearing your recruiter’s cap, get to play matchmaker and place a candidate with a client, don’t misinterpret how you feel and how you want them to feel. Don’t try to make them feel “special” when, in fact, the real or ideal goal is to make them and you feel “ideal” (=“perfect”) in virtue of their (and possibly your) experiencing a perfect, yet perfectly macro-commonplace moment.

You should have as one of your foremost goals that of making them feel something unmistakably universal and perfect—not special. If you can trigger a feeling so powerful and important that the capacity for it has been hard-wired over millions of years of evolution into all of us, you will definitely get the attention of both sides of your income equation.

“Specialness”: a Tough Sell

As a recruiter, you don’t have to verbalize this perfectionist objective to anyone. Just incorporate your understanding of it into your tactics, strategies and mission.

In doing so, you will change more than the words you use; you will modify your approach, how you are perceived by client and candidate, and how they see themselves and their experience of and with you.

To see this, compare two recruiters; the first possesses the traditional understanding that he should, above all, make the client and the candidate both feel “special”—somehow superior (“feel special”) as well as privileged to have a personally rare experience (“feel something special”).

The second recruiter, on the other hand and in the spirit of Plato, aims to make them feel they are approaching and becoming something “ideal” or “perfect”, while feeling something universal and perfect.

One obvious problem with the “special”-focused first recruiter approach is that not only because a recruiter or HR manager must deal with many job categories, but also because they commonly deal with huge numbers of very similar people within each of those categories, credibly selling the idea that each is “special” is going to be tough.

Pulling off this pitch is especially likely to be as difficult as it is tempting in the U.S., where B.A.s, M.B.A.s, SUV ownership, flawless resumes, great references, computer skills, high ambition, team orientation, the specific required skill set and an iPhone are virtually universally possessed by your job candidates and applicants.  If you throw into the mix the (self-) perception of applicants as “human resources” to be selected, harvested, culled, processed, distributed and disposed of, it becomes obvious that their being “special” is going to be a very hard sell, indeed, irrespective of whatever “special” efforts to sell it you can think of.

As a minimum, the candidate is going to get a very mixed message: “You are a very special general human resource.” When you somehow suggest to a candidate that she is a special general resource, you are very likely to trigger one of four states: doubt, demoralization, Orwellian “double-think”, or—if she buys it—delusion.

If you go down that “special”-focused road blinkered by that bias, you may very well undermine your own professional and personal credibility somewhere along the way, in addition to committing a disservice to your clientele by misleading, confusing or misdirecting them.

The Platonic Approach

Now consider the second recruiter who concentrates on making a job candidate or client feel something “universal” and perfect, while the latter feels his or her way toward becoming more perfect and experiencing something perfect, rather than being special and feeling something special.

This strategy has two prongs: The first prong is to encourage him or her to believe not that he/she is or should try to be “special”, but, instead, to validate or inspire aspirations to be “perfect” and to have a perfect experience, however universal it may be.

Unlike “competitive specialness”—and this is a key point, “perfection” can be universal, i.e., logically and theoretically, everybody can achieve it. As most commonly conceptualized, “being special” is competitive, zero-sum, exclusionary and heartbreaking for most people—namely the many who fail to become special, because, according to this competitive understanding of “specialness”, there must be far fewer “special” people than “perfect” ones, given that not everyone can be special in a competition and because perfection poses a challenge, not an exclusion.

Buffett vs. Plato

Requiring something “special” is Warren Buffett’s thing, quoted above. Aiming for perfection, a.k.a. “ideal”, on the other hand, is Plato’s.

According to Plato all perfect or ideal triangles, governments, smiles, apples and gifted Apple employees possess and share that trait to some degree—the trait of perfection, conceived as the key attribute of each of Plato’s ideal “forms”, “ideas”, and, yes, “universals”.  As Plato saw it, everything in the “real”, material world is but an imperfect copy “participating” in the corresponding perfection of its abstract “blueprint” to some degree.

Hence, it can be argued that the right goal is for all of us together to collaboratively strive to attain as high a degree of knowledge and emulation of that perfection as is humanly possible, rather than to competitively strive to be merely unique.

This view entails the notion that shared perfection can be established with perfect harmony among all who possess it. Just as there is room on a healthy apple tree for lots of (nearly) perfect apples, there will be lots of psychological and other space for lots of (nearly) perfect candidates.  That’s because, by definition (of “perfectio”, the Latin root of “perfection”, which involves no comparisons), everyone—without logical contradiction–can be (nearly) perfect, in contrast to the lucky or “special” few who can be special, as most people conceive competitive specialness.

Blending the Universal with the Perfect

The second prong is to focus on the client and candidate experiences, in addition to their (self-) images. Here too, the smart money will bet on the wisdom of having them see their experience with you, with the job, with the company, and with each other as the universal and ideal experience, including the universal and ideal emotional responses.

The latter feelings include nearly perfect job satisfaction, professional optimism, feelings of corporate cohesion and many other feelings replicated by hundreds of thousands of professionals around the world, every day.

Dumping “Special”

Concretely, how can a recruiter accomplish this idealist task? The easiest and first step is to shut up about “special”. Dump the word. Inject “ideal”, “perfect”, even “universal” (with intellectually-inclined clientele) into your pitches, negotiations and casual conversations.

Next, make it clear or at least somehow suggest that you expect the candidate and client to feel so good that he and she will feel like a giggling kid splashing in a backyard pool or a doubled-over extra in an Eddie Murphy movie breaking up with laughter on the set—swept up by universal and universally understood feelings of elation.

Then, while being realistic about the competitive challenges on both the supply and demand sides of the job equation, assure them that being (nearly) ideal or perfect is good enough, and encourage them to enjoy their (near) perfection and to relax a little while they wait for the final outcome.

This may actually reduce the number of anxious, insecurity-driven phone calls you might otherwise have to field from candidates striving to be  “number 1” and better than everybody else. Call this “Platonic placement”, if you need a mnemonic.

When Perfect Is Not Enough

Of course, often the “special” candidate will seem “perfect”, and vice versa. However, despite whatever imagined coexistence of these characteristics there may seem to be in one person, they carry two very distinct and conflicting perceptions, feelings and practical implications.

For example, even though, as a recruiter or a Valentine’s Day suitor, you may recognize that you have found someone “ideal”, you may unconsciously or otherwise feel pressured to go the extra detour mile and look for someone more “special”—which could cost you time, energy and the (nearly) perfect candidate you have already found.

A perfect apple doesn’t also have to be special. It’s there—beckoningly dangling from the tree. Take it.

It is true that the bar is set higher for achieving perfection than for being special. Because of this, it is also true that “nobody is perfect” sounds more likely to be true than “nobody is special”. But at least, in theory, we could all become perfect in the same way, even though we cannot all become special in the same way.

“Special”: Competitive Comparison, or Collaborative Contrast?

Although it is possible for all of us to be “special” by applying a different yardstick to each, e.g., butcher, baker, candlestick maker, the problem is that so many people want to be “more special” than others, or to at least be special by comparison, not by the Adam Smith division-of-labor “butcher-baker-candlestick maker” contrast. Pursuing the implications of this classical economic paradigm, it is a fair observation that most people at least want to—in some, in any way—be be “rare”, to have “scarcity value”, especially within their circle, as opposed to among all circles.

To avoid that pitfall, you must understand that, in daily recruiting and giving Valentine’s Day chocolates and roses, your job is not to confirm anybody’s “specialness” in comparison to all others. Nor is it to sell them on the idea of “special by contrast”, e.g., them vs. a leaf, since that’s not what they really want, nor what they would appreciate, given their crowded professional fields.

They don’t want the complementary Wealth of Nations division-of-labor kind of contrast-specialness of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker—the kind of macro-collaborative specialness that may, at the end of the day, best define American individualism (despite fierce micro-economic competition within each of these trades). Nor do they want to be special in the contrasting way in which “special education”, “special needs” kids are.

No,they want to be the (or at least a) special baker, competitively distinguished from and superior to (most and preferably all) other bakers—not the baker distinguished from and harmoniously complementing the collaborative role of the candlestick makers.

They want invidious comparisons, not harmonious contrasts. Understanding this, don’t tempt or indulge them.

Make a Special Effort to Do a Perfect Job

Accordingly and instead, a valuable task that falls to you as a recruiter, a father, a mother, a spouse and simply as a human being, is to liberate others’ universal, hard-wired joyful emotions while validating them (the people and the feelings) as (nearly) ideal and perfect—indeed, as one of possibly numberless (nearly) perfect incarnations of one or more of Plato’s “universals”.

If you do that, then, just maybe, you will be able to convince whomever you forgot on Valentine’s Day that your misstep was nothing “special”, just like the endless recrimination and nagging you will have to put up with until next Valentine’s Day.

Read more in Recruiting Help

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).