Hire for attitude, Train for skill – Reconciling the two

My previous post unpacks “hire for attitude, train for skill.” This post tries to repack it! The last post was more abstract, it talked about implications. This one aims to be specific, it talks about actions.

We are jumping right in, considering a few examples of performance against the grain.

Quite often, it is the cop with the bad-ass attitude who succeeds in nailing the crooks. The regular cop who goes by the book, the cop who is a perfect fit for the recruitment specification doesn’t.  Of course, nobody wants to cram the force with all bad-ass attitude people. That would be creating a Frankenstein. But this frequent success calls into question the simplistic interpretation of  ‘required attitude’, the attitude considered right for the job.

A system is effective if it accommodates such a bad-ass attitude cop while putting in safeguards to shield the system from his deviant ways. To be sure,attitude is not the same thing as integrity or character. Integrity & character are non-negotiable. Those who reject any criticism of ‘ hire for attitude, train for skill’ do so because they think we are condoning lack of integrity or a character flaw.  No we are not. Trust we are clear on this aspect.

Another example. The most rebellious student is made a class monitor. Happens quite a bit, doesn’t it? Surely, the student has an attitude problem. Curiously enough, we know that many a student does well in the situation. Why? What explains this success? Perhaps it is the responsibility thrust upon the rebel student. But why does the student respond to this call of responsibility? Here goes : The strength to rebel against the established order showcases the very capability to uphold the order. If the student has it in her to break the rules, she has it in her to protect them. The attitude that can make a student effective is present in this student – the strength & intensity is there. It is just flipped upside down – working against the cause rather than for it. Most of us are not able to recognize the attitude because it is upside down.

When it comes to success, we often long to associate humility with winners. The Australian cricket team makes our life so miserable on this count.  They are highly skilled. But we can’t like them because their attitude reeks of arrogance. The cricketers themselves are puzzled over why the wider world so dislikes them.In their minds, as a unit, they cannot separate how they behave ( attitude) and what they do ( skill). Their skills & attitude continuously merge into each other as one indivisible state of being. Their cricket is a way of self-expression.

As one australian cricketer put it, “We play our best when we have a bit of the mongrel spirit in our play.” This spirit is visible to the world and is frowned upon. What is invisible is the relentless work-ethic that makes the Australians train harder than any team in the world. There is nothing wrong in the attitude of these cricketers towards training and preparation. And that’s the point. There are so many facets to attitude. One has to figure out which facet is the key to being effective at the core task.How does one figure that out?

As Peter Drucker would say, take a look at the task. What are the specific requirements of the task? Then have a nuanced perspective on what aspects of attitude are germane to the task.

An example. A baggage screener at the airport needs to look out for suspicious objects. If the screener has a saintly view of human nature, considering everybody as worthy of trust and consideration, that’s disastrous; isn’t it? A screener who is naturally skeptical, one who has a disposition to distrust appearances; she is a perfect fit for the core task. But then, she has other associated tasks requiring trust and faith in her colleagues. In teamwork, this skeptical screener has to reconcile her basic distrusting nature with a leap of faith into a lot of things. She has to trust her colleagues & their competence. She has to have faith that the collective team work is taking care of all loose ends. She has to accept the leadership call taken by higher-ups. She has to balance her distrust – that serves her well in her core task – with cultivated trust in teamwork.  She needs to master herself in the service of a purpose she believes in. Can we help her strengthen her belief? Let us do that.

We put our skeptical screener in charge of a junior apprentice.While the skeptical screener has the attitude, and is driven to acquire the skill of baggage screening; this spirited junior has the skill but is not quite there with the attitude. The skeptical screener unzips even the last compartment of the luggage where nothing but a keychain could fit. The junior is faster than her senior but shrugs off the last stretch. The junior is superskilled in rummaging through luggage contents at an admirable speed, something that is so critical in a rush hour. But she lets up on that last tiny compartment. To do it every single time requires a deep-rooted skepticism, which the junior doesn’t have.

In due course of time, things will work out well. The junior will improve in attitude while the senior will experience first-hand how to take that leap of faith and trust your partner. Each will learn what will make them more effective on the job. What is required for this to happen? A shared purpose and a crystal-clear clarity on what constitutes a perfect outcome. Purpose fuses people together for commitment towards the perfect outcome. They will argue and fight if need be, and still be together; as long as purpose unites them.

Indeed, the cop with the bad-ass attitude needs to have a shared purpose if he is to not go astray. He needs to know what the ends are in the most vivid detail. He needs to understand and accept which means can justify the ends, and which means can never justify them.

The rebel student responds to the responsibility of being a class monitor because she has sized up what it means by being on the other side of the line. Only the one who swims against the tide knows the strength of it. The student already has the skill, and the attitude flips right side up after she is entrusted with the responsibility. This calls for deeper reflection.The student finds purpose after being chosen for the task, not before.

The skeptical screener learns to be effective as an individual and a team player when she has to learn how to trust without compromising her effectiveness. This helps both her and her junior to crystallize the purpose.

To sum up,

If you take ‘hire for attitude, train for skill’ as a straight-jacketed recruiting principle, you are not recognizing how nuanced real performance actually is. It is tough to balance attitude and skill. The pole that we hold in our hands as we walk this tight-rope between attitude and skill has two ends.

At one end, we are asking, is there shared purpose- why are we doing this? Are we all together in this?

At the other end, we are asking, what is the perfect outcome? What does it look like?

If we consistently, persistently, ask these two questions, we are better equipped to reconcile both attitude and skill. If we hire looking out for shared purpose first, and then agreement on the perfect outcome, we are on a surer footing. Doing so is the responsibility of leaders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *