organisational psychology

Attracting amazing humans and keeping them happy - 5 tips

Last month, I partnered with the fabulous Michelle Minniken to deliver a session to budding and seasoned entrepreneurs on how to attract and retain amazing humans. We gave participants our top 5 practical tips informed by our personal experiences and the latest organisational and positive psychological research. 

The session was delivered as part of the festival of entrepreneurial energy and ideas that is the annual Newcastle Startup Week.

Michelle melds fun, professionalism and pragmatism with occupational psychology in a way I always find refreshing. Further detail about Michelle, Insights BP, and a fuller version of our conversation at startup week, then please check out the Insights BP blog

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Our top 5 tips

1)    Get personal

If you’re genuinely looking to create an exceptional work environment one of the most powerful things you can do is to allow people to personalise their approach to work.

The frustration with our current approach to recruiting and managing people is that we don’t treat people as individuals. Increasingly, (and often unintentionally) our desire for fairness, equality and efficiency has nudged us to a more homogenous, sterile and joyless approach to working.

We forgot to treat people as humans. We don’t take the time to understand and make the most of individual strengths, talents and interests.

Rather than ignore our diversity and expect everyone to do their work in the exact same way, let’s embrace our individuality.

We can make work more personal by intentionally taking time to understand the strengths and interests of the people that work with us. We can enable everyone to make the most of their talents and preferences by making small, active, changes to shape their work.

Our work is often a lot more flexible than the average job description would have you believe.

People personalising their work by as little as 5 minutes a day, in a way that matters to them and they find enjoyable, can make a potential difference to their enjoyment and satisfaction.  

Take away:

Explore an individual's talents, strengths and interests with them and be open to finding ways of allowing people to do (slightly) more of the things they are good at, and enjoy doing, and (slightly) less of the things that aren’t a natural strength or they find de-energising.  

2)    Don't think you're a good judge of character

It’s really hard to choose humans well.

Michelle is an occupational psychologist, but on her second husband. 

In the workplace, problems occur because when recruiters start hiring, they don’t have any real understanding of how to accurately assess humans, so tend to rely on shortcuts in their decision making, which include both conscious and unconscious biases.

The cost of hiring the wrong person is massive. It’s around five times their annual salary.

The root cause of most of our recruitment problems stems from the way we hire. An over reliance on CVs without any due diligence regarding their veracity, or simply relying on an unstructured interview using questions designed to 'trip' candidates up rather than allowing them to demonstrate their suitability for the role are just 2 of the significant issues we see. 

Don’t just hire for experience and skills alone. Hire the whole human.

Take away

Hirers need to be a little more scientific. At a basic level, check if a candidate can actually do the job by giving them a task to perform. Check their knowledge. For example, if they’re a developer, discuss code; if it’s a sales role, talk through hypothetical scenarios with customers, and for a more strategic role ask them to do a 90-day plan.

3)    Forget the perfect match

We often delude ourselves when recruiting that we are looking for the “perfect match” to the detailed job description we have developed. We’re searching for the magic unicorn. The truth is the perfect job match and – sorry to break this - unicorns don’t exist.

It would be a surprise to us if many people look at their job descriptions more than twice a year after starting a job.

We should be incorporating more flexibly when designing jobs – be clear on key tasks but let the person being asked to do the job decide how they want to deliver according to their personal strengths, passions and interests.

Take away

Aside from the small but specific skills and competencies that may be critical for a role, consider the broader experiences, values and contribution a potential applicant could bring.

4)    Show some trust

Letting go, delegating and generally just trusting people to do the right thing can often be hard. But we'd argue that this is critical in enabling longterm, scalable, success.

People that feel trusted at work have a greater sense of ownership and engagement in the tasks they do.

Micro-managers are still a real problem in the workplace, which can starve creativity and motivation.

I have, listen and read many interviews with founders of new businesses. When reflecting on what they wish they had done earlier, entrepreneurs often share stories of turning points which are associated with 'letting go' or 'delegating' key tasks.

Our advice to start-up and scale-ups would be to show trust and offer autonomy early-on.

It’s dangerous for founders and leaders to continually tell others how to solve issues or what to do. Allowing colleagues to successfully grapple with problems, learn and bring their own perspectives will pay dividends in the longer term, both motivationally and in terms of performance.

Take away

Hire good people, give them some boundaries, responsibility and accountability. Then get out of their way and allow them to perform.

Show(er) people (with) trust, respect and kindness. Praise loudly and listen intently. 

5 (Most of all) Just don't be a dick

Show(er) people (with) trust, respect and kindness. Praise loudly and listen intently. 

Too many people - intentionally or not - starve people of the oxygen and fuel they need to do great work by punishing mistakes, being controlling, manipulative, disinterested and silent in terms of reward, recognition and praise.

Relationships at work are precious. How you treat people shapes their commitment and interest in the work that they do.

Remember, from a recruitment perspective, the candidate experience is a two-way street, and the power of the internet is such that a terrible experience can severely impact your reputation, and therefore your ability to recruit good humans.

Highlighting faults, failing and bad practice is similarly now just a(n anonymous) click away for disgruntled ex-employees.

If you think people don't check out your ratings on websites such as Glassdoor, then you are deluding yourself. 

The world of work would be so much better if we could install some kind of “you’re being a dick” alarm in workplaces, which would alert you and others to the fact that that you are acting, thinking and/or behaving in a way that at best just sucks the energy and enthusiasm from others and at worst is a source of harm, upset and long term disengagement.

In the absence of “you’re being a dick” alarm (patent pending) as a founder or leader you won’t go far wrong if you just treat people as people with lashings of dignity, compassion and kindness. 

Take away:

Be nice. Treat people as people, with dignity, respect, compassion and kindness.


Thanks to all involved in the Newcastle Start-up week for inviting us to present. Newcastle Start-up Week 2019 will take place from 13 - 17 May. It is highly recommended. 

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