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Spare a Thought for the High Achievers

Picture the scenario – you graduate top of the class in your Masters in Finance. You’ve toiled hard for years, planned, sacrificed, felt the pressures of expectation and temptation and now, it’s decision time. Your choices are broad: Magic Circle? Big Four? Investment Bank? Startup? Think-tank? Dublin? London? New York?

It’s a happy position, right? The world is your oyster – you just need to weigh up your options, choose the best employer and start a glorious career. Unfortunately for a lot of high achievers, that very position is excruciating.

The Paradox of Choice refers to the anxiety and mental stress caused by trying to choose between a broad array of broadly good options. Decision paralysis is a hotly studied and debated phenomenon. In 2004, Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and a world-leading expert on choice found that when it comes to either trivial choices or serious choices, adding more choices leads to demotivation and less decision-making.

At the trivial end, when given free samples of jams in a store, 30% of people exposed to 6 jams bought a jar. However, when exposed to 24 jams – only 3% of people purchased a jam. In her study of retirement plans, research of 80,000 employees found that participation in pensions fell as the number of options increased. Procrastination, poor decision-making and unhappiness ensued.

And this effect is often intensified for high achievers – because so many of them are Maximisers. In other words, perfectionists who need to carefully weigh up every single option or alternative before they can be satisfied with their decision. That can be a daunting task when the alternatives are complex and generally attractive. Psychologically, it’s painful.

(By contrast, Satisficers worry less about their choices – they still have criteria and standards but they worry less that they are missing a better alternative – they are more instinctive and generally happier in their decision-making).

In a 2006 study by Dr Schwartz at Columbia University, 548 college seniors were researched as they went about seeking their first job. Across the board, it was found that Maximisers secured better jobs. Their starting salaries were, on average, 20% higher than those of the Satisficers. Sadly, however, they felt worse about their jobs!

“The Maximiser is kicking himself because he can’t examine every option and at some point had to just pick something,” Schwartz says. “Maximisers make good decisions and end up feeling bad about them. Satisficers make good decisions and end up feeling good.”

So the angst is real. The question is, how can recruiters minimise it and attract their fair share of top candidates? The answer lies in creating an emotionally positive and empathetic recruitment and onboarding experience – in other words, being nice.

Schwartz found that when people are faced with having to choose one option out of many attractive alternatives, they start to focus disproportionately on the trade-offs – rather than the potential of the opportunity itself. In other words, what are they missing out on? The big problem this creates for organisations is that people can regret their choice of employer subjectively – even if it was the best decision objectively. Could this be a cause of the low average tenures we see right across some of the world’s best employers?

However, Schwartz also points to evidence that positive emotion has the opposite effect: in general, subjects are inclined to consider opportunities more when they are feeling happy.

So creating a happy experience for your candidates makes strong business sense – it can reduce paralysing feelings of anxiety and increase positive consideration of your employer value proposition. Here are some effective ways to start that process:

1. Create happy, upbeat communications

There’s a lot of fairly generic and dull employer branding content out there, which does little to create an emotional response. And what’s worse, completely fails to stand out and engage on social media.

Here’s an example of a different approach that Atomic DNA developed, which delivered exceptional results for our client.

2. Show you care

Empathy is the best way create a positive and reassuring relationship with someone. That means not talking about yourself (selling) and starting to talk about the candidate. The Career Coach Model is an excellent approach to this. (I borrow this from CEB Global, who have some excellent data and thought leadership).

Their research found that when recruiters approached candidates like career coaches i.e. when they genuinely understood their aspirations and goals and endeavoured to map out a rewarding and personalised career journey for them, their success rate rose dramatically. In fact, they had to interview about 70% fewer candidates to hire the same number as recruiters, who sold the benefits of the job/ employer first.

3. Build a group dynamic early

When we interviewed one of our client’s recent hires about their decision process, an inordinate amount of them cited that employer’s interview day as a deciding factor. This was done in a very social format – as candidates waited for an interview, they had lots of time to meet and chat with others – both current employees and other interviewees. The atmosphere was positive and supportive – so unlike the fear-inducing interview format that so many companies still adhere to.

In fact, many of the people spoke to said that they met and stayed in touch with friends during the interview process – what better way to convert and secure a new hire?

Spare a Thought for the High Achievers
4. Don’t be a stranger

If you think you have hired a high-achieving maximiser, there is a strong chance that they are experiencing some angst or remorse about their decision – cognitive dissonance in other words – like that feeling when you buy an expensive coat and then wonder why the hell you did it.

So recruiters shouldn’t disappear having made the hire. Rather they should stay in close contact and actively listen to their hire – understanding and addressing any worries that they have made a bad trade-off on an alternative employer.

Still not sure where to start with your employer communications? Get in touch. Atomic offers a free strategy session for HR leaders.

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