Dogs, Sticks and Recruiters

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How an old dog can teach you new recruitment tricks

“Walk softly and carry a big stick”—Teddy Roosevelt

What does or should a recruiter have in common with a dog chomping down on and loping along with a stick in its mouth? More to the point, what can a recruiter learn from a stick-fetching and wood-toting dog?

SOFT WALK, BIG STICK/Photo: Michael Moffa

To answer that, it will be helpful to try to figure out why dogs cannot resist chasing, shaking, gnawing, dragging, trotting with or otherwise tirelessly remaining engaged with a stick, even though, given their keen senses of smell and taste, they presumably and unerringly know the difference between a stake and a steak.

From such ruminations, we humans may be able to extract useful insights and formulate powerful parallels with extant and possible recruiting practices, perhaps to shape as well as to understand them.

In a previously published article of mine, “Voodoo, Icons and Toys”, I argued that humans represent the only animal species that is not only capable of being entranced, frightened and fooled by “simulacra” such as voodoo dolls, house-of-horrors robots, stuffed wolves, teddy bears, the Statue of Liberty, stone gargoyles and inflatable love dolls, but also the only species that makes them—and mostly for the express purpose of eliciting all of the aforementioned reactions.

Measured against this yardstick, how do the dog and its sticks stack up, so to speak? If a dog chews a fetched stick long enough, can it be argued that the dog is creating a simulacrum of some sort—a vague copy or semblance of something else, e.g., a bird or a snake that it might instinctively seize and carry? To prove the dog is our creative match, it would have to be proved that it is the dog’s intention to create a fake duck, rather than, for example, to simply chew on something because it feels good. Of course, if the stick ended up looking exactly like a miniature, albeit slimy mallard, that would give us pause (maybe paws, too) to rethink the question, while giving the dog a leg up in the debate.

For the sake of argument and engagement, let’s work with the idea that dogs chase, seize and run with sticks because the sticks are triggers of and surrogates for their retrieval/hunting instincts and instinctively pursued real targets, other animals. What can a recruiter learn from this? (For the moment, I exclude the possibility that, based on their observations of humans, dogs imagine that if they too pick up sticks, they too will learn how to throw them and transform a one-sided game of “fetch” into a two-way game of “catch”.)

To glean insights from this hunting/retrieval interpretation of the dog and stick instinctive nexus, start with its salient features. These include

– Arousal by a surrogate, a stand-in for the real thing

– Exercise and shaping of useful skills

– Tenacity of purpose

– Good “skills-challenge match” (characterized by the leading exponent of “flow theory”, University of Chicago professor, Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronunciation: “[the]chick-sent-me-high”—really), as a core requirement of being in a state of “flow”, otherwise known as “being in ‘the zone’”

– Collaboration with an instigator (usually a stick throwing human, sometimes a strong wind).

The import of all of these for recruiters, like a fresh bone, can be sniffed from the list:

1. Arousal by a surrogate, a stand-in for the real thing: In the counterpart recruitment situation, a borderline applicant corresponds to a dog’s stick—a surrogate for the real quarry. Not every applicant responding to an ad will be suitable for the position. However, like a dog that will chase anything remotely resembling the real prize, e.g., a sleek mallard, a smart recruiter will initially respond to all applicants as though they are in some respects ducks in a row—at least long enough to earn their respect and gratitude. This is a smarter approach than ignoring and alienating them, if the time and energy costs are small enough to allow such modest engagement.

2. Exercise and shaping of useful skills: If a dog were a recruiter, or vice versa, it would make sense to short-list totally or probably unacceptable job applicants—at least one, for the purpose of shaping and practicing the applicant vetting and interviewing formats, tone, goals, etc. As a straw-man stick-figure stand-in for the “real” candidates, the under-qualified applicant could gain valuable interview experience, perhaps in the form of some helpful and constructive criticism (in compensation for having been set up).

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

The recruiter—especially if new to the job sector or niche to be filled—could by this means avoid serious errors of commission or omission that would be far more likely in an unpracticed, less thought-out vetting process on unfamiliar terrain. What’s more, and very importantly, she could uniquely test her intuitions, preconceptions and standards by interviewing and vetting outside her comfort zone and familiar box—perhaps surprising herself in the process by discovering that the ugly duckling applicant was instead a delightful “black swan” (a trendy synonym for a statistical outlier).

3. Tenacity of purpose: “Sticks and stones will break my bones; try to steal my stick and I will chomp yours.”—a possible dog ditty, alluding to the possibility that dogs think sticks are bones and encapsulating their tenacity in hanging onto both. In all likelihood, the immediate response to any analogy offered between canine tenacity and recruiter assiduity will be that the similarity is too obvious to mention.

But a closer look at the details of a dog’s tenacity in hanging on to a stick (or a bone) reveals systemic performance features from which we, like Boeing engineers and designers studying falcon wings, can learn a lot. In particular, what is to be noted is how, despite the apparent tenacity of a dog in hanging on to the stick, and despite its dogged determination to never relinquish or release it, the dog will at some point drop it, so the game can be renewed afresh. Setting aside, for the moment, why it would do this, we should ask what this implies for human recruiters and how it can be used.

If you follow a dog’s logic, the implications are obvious: Assuming once again that the stick is the applicant or candidate, a recruiter should show great interest in a great or near-great applicant—but only up to a point, lest the applicant or the client become either complacent or suspicious about the recruiter’s judgment and/or sincerity.

Neg ‘Em

Studies in psychology that I recall having read long ago suggested that blending in some response negatives with positives actually enhances personal credibility more than pure positive reinforcement does. For example, it just may be more effective to remark on how fit a colleague is looking, what a great job (s)he did for a client, how much you enjoyed the Italian restaurant (s)he recommended, and then add, “But the linguine was overcooked.” That tiny swipe at the end, makes all the compliments look like huge pats on the back by comparison, while getting the message across that you are candid and confident enough to speak the truth, unlike unctuous “yes”-men or Machiavellian dissemblers. _

Applying this approach, a blend of the “tactical pause” and “strategic neg” (negative)—judiciously and sparingly—with an applicant or a client may advance your recruiting agenda as much as a dog’s dropping its stick advances it own. In both cases, the unexpected reversal serves as the “one-step-back-two-steps-forward” trigger for a reinvigorated renewal of the “game”.

4. Good skills-challenge match: According to Professor Csikszentmihalyi, the likelihood that a job or any task will be satisfying and satisfactorily completed is proportional to how well the skills available match the challenge. If the skills are under-matched, the likely result is boredom, detachment and all their attendant possible unwelcome consequences; if the skills are overmatched, the probable result will be frustration, (again) detachment and all their adverse upshots.

Ideally, the skills brought to the recruitment task will be matched well enough to allow for a stimulating, but not impossible challenge. If that match is achieved, you and your clientele are more likely to get into the “flow” and the “zone”.  That requires a skills-challenge match, like that captured in this articles photo, which I took after looking on in amazement as that dog—which I shall call “Woofus”, since that’s what I call all dogs—reveled in repeatedly picking up, carrying and dropping that half-tree (which, after hefting, I estimated weighed at least 4 pounds).

5. Collaboration with an instigator: Dogs usually require an instigator if they are going to chase sticks. Yes, they can sniff and paw them on their own; but the chase requires a third party, usually us, sometimes a strong wind.  What a recruiter can learn from this is probably as unexpected as the rest of the lessons: A key characteristic of a human instigator is that (s)he is almost always attempting to accomplish incompatible things: first, to give the dog the stick; second, to take the stick from the dog; third, to motivate the dog to chase the stick; fourth, to motivate the dog to stop chasing the stick (after the human gets tired, bored or both).

Pleasurable Conflicts and Turnarounds

On the face of it, this sounds as peculiar and pointless as Sisyphus’s rolling his rock up his hill, just to helplessly watch it career down the hill—again and again, eternally. But, at least Sisyphus had an excuse: He had no choice.

Despite the oddity of this process, it seems to afford dog and human boundless and bounding pleasure. Grasping why this is may offer some insights to be applied in recruiting.  Now, what exactly is going on during these stick games?

Viewed abstractly, what’s going on is this: First, one of the goals of the process seems to be to put both dog and human into alternating, conflicting, yet pleasurable emotional and behavioral states or roles, e.g., giving/keeping, taking/sharing, motivating/demotivating, controlling/controlled and instigator/responder. Second, there is the dim understanding that either party can terminate the game at any point, but not without some playful badgering from the other. Third, the activity is self-reinforcing.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards

This means that the rewards of the stick game are not “extrinsic” to it—e.g., nobody is going to pay to see it; rather, they are intrinsic, inherent in the activity itself, e.g., as affectionate exercise. Remarkably, this is one of the characteristics that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as a key element of the “flow experience”—self-rewarding behavior. Recruiting because you love the process—perhaps as much as or at least in addition to your paycheck is a flow clue, a marker for being “in the zone”. Psychologists never tire of telling us to seek  or at least not lose sight of the intrinsic rewards in what we do—to do them for their own sake, e.g., for the pure pleasure of the experience,  not only for the artificially added compensations of money, status, connections, etc.

Apter and Reversals

The first-mentioned characteristic—the alternation between states, roles and behavior, suggests affinities with another key psychological model: “reversal theory”, a framework associated with Dr. Michael Apter, professor, researcher and organizational consultant ( The model suggests that we operate on four different behavioral and emotional spectrums and alternate between the extremes on these—specifically, along the playful-serious spectrum, conformity-rebellion, mastery-sympathy and self-other continuums.

Basic Motivation vs. Meta-Motivation

These define what Apter calls “meta-motivational states” that tinge other more basic motivational states, e.g., being meta-motivated to be playful or serious as one is motivated to eat. In the dog-and-master stick chase, the play will usually alternate between “conformity” in following a command (“Fetch, Woofus!”) and “rebellion” in resisting another (“Give me the stick, Woofus!”), thereby providing meta-motivational conformity-rebellion color to the primary basic motivations to play, engage and get exercise.

Roughly the distinction between what one is doing (the “basic motivation”) and how one is doing it (the “meta-motivation” style and secondary goal), the distinction between basic motivation and meta-motivation, as well as the concept of reversals can be fruitfully applied to various stages and aspects of the recruitment process.

For example, as a recruiter, you are primarily motivated to make both your employer client and your job candidate happy. That’s your basic motivation. How you go about doing that, e.g., whether you do it in a playful or serious way, or whether your primary focus is on you or on them. Chances are you never mull these options, because, as reversal theory acknowledges, most people will have a dominant style, despite the fact that they do and should experience meta-motivation reversals, e.g., from serious to playful in an interview.

The Trait Trap

By the same token, in evaluating applicants, you should not fall into the “trait trap”—the temptation to identify an applicant’s cardinal and static character and personality traits. Apter maintains that we are more like dancers than statues. We have a natural reversal rhythm that depends on mood, moment and the matter at hand. You may be extraverted at an office party, but introverted in a boardroom meeting, or vice versa.

Or, as I see it, you may even blend these opposites into a single moment, as I do, whenever I go to a party and behave like a tactical extrovert and strategic introvert in the same situation, in virtue of being the life of the party so I can meet a nice woman to immediately take to a quiet café. Teddy Roosevelt’s contribution to the psychology of sticks, quoted above, is a second example of this melding of opposites into a kind of “instantaneous reversal”. “Carrot and stick”, which has endless corporate applications, is a third.

Reversal theory is a reminder that our impressions of people should be much more like ever-changing views through kaleidoscopes than like mug shots—including and especially of applicants, who may promote their fixed “traits” in their resumes and interviews in order to appear totally predictable and consistent, e.g., “diligent”, “analytical”, “team-player”, “well-organized”, when, in fact, they will have moments when they will be none or only some of those.

The theory also implicitly echoes the warning of another psychologist, the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, who maintained that what we call a fixed “character”—as a set of unchanging, dependable moral and psychological traits—is a rigid fiction of modern capitalism, created, promoted and sustained in order to ensure that workers are as predictable (“dependable”) and cooperative (“controllable”) as possible, like the machines so many of them operate and the clocks they punch.

The moral of this reversal and meta-motivational story is that you, the recruiter should be open to three things:

  • Reversal of your own habitual meta-motivational style, e.g., from serious to playful, at least as you pass from one situation to another, if not within one situation. Allow yourself to surprise yourself and your clientele by appearing a little less like a cardboard cut-out “professional” and a little more human.
  • Sensitivity to the reversals and (rhythmic) complexity of clients and applicants—who, unlike predictable automata, can surprise you with their shifts and swings of their own meta-motivations, if not their basic motivations. Yes, you may want to be sure about the dominant meta-motivations of a candidate, but always allow him or her to be a complete human being. Allow them to turn off the playful McSmile and don’t panic if they do so for a moment. Conversely, leave a little room for the kid in them to play and maybe share a joke, to offset any corporate sobriety they or you associate with “being professional”.
  • Paying more attention to client and applicant states than to their traits, being careful not to mistake a state for a trait: Don’t assume that what you see is what you will get—in either sense of “get” (“comprehend”, as well as “obtain” after hiring). Before concluding that an applicant is an “X-type”, be sure that you didn’t mistake a transient, situation-induced state for a defining trait.

If you want to learn more about flow and reversal theory, but don’t have the time or space to do a lot of reading, there is a shortcut.  Just go to a park on your lunch break.

Then look for a dog…

….and a stick.

Read more in Employee Motivation

Michael Moffa, writer for, 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).