Too Much Recruiter Self-Congratulation?

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My recent discussion of “the real reason why we need recruiters” has prompted at least one reflective reader to question why recruiters need to congratulate themselves or be congratulated just for doing their jobs.

His comments (below) got me thinking: If a police chief addressing his officers reminds them that their mission is “to serve and protect”, he is unlikely to be criticized for indulging in or encouraging (self-)congratulation of the entire police force, individual officers or himself. Indeed, far from congratulating them, he may actually be scolding them.

So, then why is telling recruiters why they are needed and what their mission should be automatically an invitation to or instance of self-congratulation?

Collective self-congratulating and “gloating” is how reader Lucas Wilkins characterized my description of the key functions recruiters perform.

For example, as he sees it, it is apparently self-congratulatory to point out that recruiters provide a softer, personal and buffering interface between the potentially cold and conflicting calculations of demand-side employers and supply-side job seekers.

Somehow, to him, defining, rating or validatingthe recruiter’s job mission seems to translate intocongratulating those who perform it. This is how Lucas put it:

“Just ‘another’ article written by a sector of the workforce that seem to think they are far superior to other divisions within businesses! The bottom line is: You have a role within business, you are no different to the bloke that installs the kitchen where you probably make your twenty cups of tea a day whilst bragging about being a ‘recruiter’…………Get over it editor! The cleaner has a role within your workplace as well…….I don’t see them gloating about there [sic] ‘also important role’ in a news article! Shut up and get back to work lol!”

Hold the Pitchforks and Torches

Now, before racing for the pitchforks, tar, feathers, torches and Lucas, think twice about what he said (if you haven’t already).

Is he not correct in suggesting that, in actual instances of it, professional self-congratulation is needless, vain, conceited, arrogant and frivolous as a distraction from getting on with getting the job done? (But note, this is not to say that giving reasons why we need recruiters is one such instance.)

Before answering that question, in the interest of clarity and precision, it is important to distinguish, with respect to a professional mission and performance,

  • Defining
  • Rating
  • Validating
  • Congratulating (by praising mission purposes and/or execution, through expressed (self-) congratulations).

Although with some very clever packaging the lines among these four processes can be blurred, e.g., by a skilled military or motivational-seminar recruiter, fundamentally they are rather different.

To equate the first three (defining, rating and/or validating) with the last (praising) is a mistaken short-cut to concluding that giving reasons why we need recruiters is nothing more than an exercise in self-congratulation.

But, note the differences:

  • Defining the mission: This is essential as a precondition for doing any job: set the goals, the acceptable means and the other standards to be followed in pursuit of those goals. Such definition can also be imperative in those instances where there may confusion or lapses within the ranks, e.g., when a policeman goes rogue or if a recruiter violates a performance or ethics code by giving preferential treatment to his girlfriend who has applied for a job.

Reminding professionals what their mandate is can also be an excellent way to maintain or restore morale. No congratulations (self- or otherwise) here. Far from it, in many instances—especially in the context of reprimands, warnings or re-motivation.

So, merely defining the mission is not a form of self-congratulation.

Allowing a further distinction between the intent and the consequences of such “defining moments”, it can also happen that the intention to merely define a job mission may (ironically) be perceived by those who find it inspiring as a kind of disguised bragging or effusive praise.

For example, suppose an ice cream company decides to tell its drivers that their mission is, in part, to strengthen family ties by creating shared “family ice cream moments”. Nice. Elevating and inspiring.

But, if the idea originated with a driver, does that make this part of the job description “self-congratulation”?

When an Army recruiter inspiringly tells recruits that they are now “defenders of democracy” is that self-congratulation, or merely required orientation? (Or has it cunningly been blurred to make it both?)

Surely, being inspired and being boastful are not the same.

  • Rating the mission:As feedback, ratings are also essential. In not only measuring the difference between expectations and actual performance, but also in evaluating the (de)merits of the goals as  (not) worthwhile or optimal targets, rather than their having been reached or not, ratings are invaluable for the purposes of performance tracking, guidance, (re)orientation and (re-)motivation.

When the performance or the goals themselves receive negative ratings, “self-congratulation” is the last characterization likely to fit.

So, simply rating recruiters’ goals and efforts to achieve them is not automatically  self-congratulatory—Indeed, the rating may be negative, or if positive, therapeutic reassurance or badly needed intervention.

  • Validating the mission:On the other hand, when the ratings and evaluations of both the mission performance and the mission mandate are both positive, the impression can easily be created that this kind of validation is a blatant or disguised form of (self-)congratulation.

However, upon closer examination, it can easily be seen thatto equate validation and congratulations is to make a huge logical leap.

Informing professionals that they have met their targets, i.e., validation as confirmation,  is to merely state an objective “matter of fact”. On the other hand, to praise them for it is to express a subjective value-judgment (i.e., validation as congratulatory evaluation).

To clearly see this difference, just recall (if this ever happened to you) getting an “A” on your school report card, but being scolded by your exacting parents for not having gotten an “A+”. That’s the difference. You stated the facts; your parents expressed their values.

If a professional example is needed, contemplate the differences among Serena Williams’ reminding herself that her goal is to win, that she just won and that she’s the best of the best.

Only the last-mentioned is self-congratulatory. So if her coach stops short of that and merely reminds and confirms for her that her defining goal is to win (or, less likely, to enjoy the game) and that she’s won virtually all of her matches, he’s neither congratulating her nor the creators of tennis, any tennis association, tennis fans nor tennis sponsors. He is only validating (by confirming, not congratulating) her understanding of her mission.

That’s what I thought I was doing in my analysis of why we need recruiters.

Coaching, not boasting.

And maybe just reassurance.

Reassurance—something that recruiters, in virtue of the ever-evolving complexities and variety of their tasks, require more than the less challenged (or those who are some of the less engaged) cleaners Lucas praises for not “gloating” just because they have a “role”.

As for whatever defense gloating deserves, it can be said that gloating does correlate closely with a sense of having accomplished something valuable—at least to oneself. On the negative side of the ledger, “gloating”, unlike broader self-congratulation, is almost always at the expense of someone else.

I, for one, fail to see how itemizing the essential functions of recruiters is in any way “gloating” at the expense of anyone.

The Essential “5Rs”

It is fair to maintain that reassurance, reorientation, review, reaffirmationand even re-motivation are absolutely essential  “5Rs” in any profession—including recruiting— that is complex, with huge variations in sectors and demands, and with constantly evolving tools.

For anyone who is not in that kind of profession, and who is unfamiliar with these associated professional constraints, challenges and developments, each one of these “5R” tasks may appear to be a form of self-congratulation. That’s understandable.

Validation: Confirming Facts vs. Declaring Values

It is especially understandable because validation as factual confirmation of goal achievement is commonly and easily confused with validation as an expression of approval, praise, congratulations, etc.

Merely stating a fact can be misconstrued as bragging, even though the “True” and the “Good” are, as Plato taught us, not the same.

So, anyone who confuses merely stating the facts of performance with arrogantly declaring the superiority of the performer is making a mistake. To fail to make or see that distinction is also to confuse areason for boasting with a manifestation of it.  Repeat: These are not the same, Lucas.

  • Self-congratulations: So, when, if ever, is self-congratulation not only deserved, but also valuable, if not crucial? To answer this, the distinction between individual self-congratulation and collective self-congratulation must be drawn.  Start with the individual case, which, organizationally, is the rarer of the two—especially since congratulating is pretty much defined as a 2-person interaction.

Suppose I privately “congratulate myself”, whatever that means, for a job well done. Basically, this is nothing more than feeling good about having done my job and having done it well. There’s nothing wrong with that—is there? So, it seems that private self-congratulation is not a “bad thing”.

In fact, it can be argued that not “congratulating oneself” this way is a bad sign: Either the job has not been done, has been done badly, is a matter of indifference or does not afford any satisfaction—no matter how it turned out. (Remember self-congratulation does not have to be gloating.)

Now suppose my self-congratulation is public, rather than a private thought, i.e., is boasting. “I did a great job! Gosh, I’m just so cool!” This kind of bragging is both annoying and likely to backfire: “I boasted, but I DID A GREAT JOB!” gets socially transcribed and circulated as “He did a great job, BUT HE BOASTED.”  That kind of self-congratulation is a self-defeating tactic, unless said to someone easily impressed or starved for news.

First conclusion: Private and individual self-congratulation is not just OK; it may be highly desirable as a marker of a job well done. On the other hand, one individual’s public self-congratulation is just blatant and annoying boasting that’s likely to backfire.

That leaves the collective self-congratulation. I recall a video clip of Vladimir Putin, commenting on some American university assembly. After a huge round of applause from students and administrators for a university spokesperson who was praising them, Putin’s translator rendered a Putin comment on that as “You are applauding yourselves.”

Whether that was a translation that was too clumsy or too honest, I can’t say; but it made a couple of key points:

1. Group self-congratulation is only a bit less transparent than individual bragging.

2. Group self-congratulation can serve useful functions. These include (a) reinforcing a group identity or its sense of solidarity (often essential to individual as well as collective motivation and success) and (b) leveling individual differences in performance that could breed resentment, insecurity, self-doubt or precisely the kind of arrogance that self-congratulation is charged with promoting.

This latter, rather ironic point is subtle and important: By congratulating all the members of a group or sector (including possibly oneself), the congratulator is striking an egalitarian chord that is likely to inhibit precisely the king of personal individual vanity, conceit and arrogance that Lucas rightly decries, since everyone is being congratulated equally.

So, at least this much of a case can be made in defense of self-congratulation of a group.

However, just in case Lucas (whom I wish to thank for stimulating and contributing to these reflections) is not convinced, I shall refrain from attempting any further justification of recruiter or other group self-congratulation.

Instead, I’ll just congratulate myself for having done a good job…

…in both senses of “good job”.


Image: “NARCISSUS” by Michelangelo Caravaggio

By Michael Moffa