Why companies hire smart people but for the wrong reasons.

Pic by Radek Skrzypczak

Your brain loves you as much as you do. That’s why it worries. Your brain knows that organizations can change but not everyone wants to change. Your brain doesn’t want you to get fooled by that illusion.

Helping hundreds of people look for a new job, I’ve learned a lot discussing their job search experiences. To my surprise, people are more worried about landing a job in the wrong company, than not getting one at all.

The gap between what they are promised and the reality of the job is what scares the hell out of their brains.

Your brain worries about you, it doesn’t want you just to get a job offer. your brains wants you to be hired at the right place. One where you don’t need to leave your brain at home.

Why Your Brain Is Scared

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Your brain worries that you could be easily seduced by corporate storytelling. To get caught by a picture perfect job opportunity. And then fail to do proper due diligence.

In the movie “The Firm” where Mitch McDeere, (Tom Cruise) a young Harvard Law graduate gets hired by a small yet super rich law firm in Memphis. Bendini, Lambert and Locke, gave Mitch an offer he couldn’t resist: to pay off his student loans, buy him a house and a Mercedes-Benz. It’s the perfect job — until Mitch begins to wonder why no lawyer has ever left the firm (alive). When he realizes that “the firm” is actually working for the Mafia it’s too late. His career, ideals and brain are at risk.

Sounds like too much of a stretch? Maybe. But your brain knows better. And it’s worried.

Unfortunately, many people work at places where stupidity is not only encouraged but rewarded with popularity and promotion, as shown in this incisive research by André Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at the University of London.

Places that promote stupidity scare the hell out of your brain.

What Companies Are (Really) Looking For

Don’t confuse what a company says they are looking for and what they are really looking for.

When selecting a candidate for a new position, organizations also send a message to the world. Sometimes, what the new hire “says” about the organization turns to be more important than his/her brain. Watch out for these indicators.

  • They want PEDIGREE, not a brain: Mitch was hired at “The Firm” because of being at the top of his Harvard class. That prestige was perfect for a small law firm that needed to hide their ties to the mob. Pedigree is something that companies look for. I’ve heard so many stories of bright folks that get hired solely on their credentials to then end navigating and surviving a rigid operating system. They don’t need to bring their brains to work, to do never-ending reports and attending useless meetings.
  • They want a SAVIOR, not a change leader: Undermining your talent can be as damaging as overestimating your impact. Some companies are going through very difficult times and naively believe that one person can change their destiny overnight. Make sure you are not hired to save the day but then lack what you need. Will you get the right support team, and resources? Are you being hired to solve the right problem or to fight a symptom? Will you be given the responsibilities you need to drive real solutions?
  • They hire COOKIE CUTTER employees, not a brain with personality: Mitch had an edge, but “The Firm” makes every attempt to turn him into one of them. That also includes his wife and how they decorate their house. Some companies don’t value people’s uniqueness and personality. They want you to leave your brain and soul at work to become “part of the culture”.
  • They want the ILLUSION OF CHANGE, not real change: During the interview process, they are passionate about everything you achieved in the past. “That’s exactly what our firm needs” -you are told. And it’s music to your ears. Only until you realize your new employer doesn’t really want to change. Your brain’s reputation helped to please the Board or the press. But preserving the status-quo is all your new boss wants. Not your brain.
  • They need a TOKEN, not an asset: Organizations want to be perceived as open-minded and fair. Though the need for diversity can get in the way of true intentions. Does your potential employer really care about your brain or are you simply being hired to fill a quota? And this “token trap” is not just limited to gender, ethnicity or sexual-orientation. It also applies to skills like ”business disruption” or “big data”. When evaluating a new job opportunity, make sure your brain is being considered as an asset, not as a token.
  • They promote WINNING AT ANY COST, not ethics: There’s nothing wrong to joining an ambitious team. A competitive culture will help elevate your brain’s game. The problem is when an organization just cares about winning, and doing so at the expense of burning their teams. A smart brain without a soul is worthless. Join a company that will help you grow more than just your bank account.

Try This Exercise

“If you let a person talk long enough you’ll hear their true intentions. Listen twice. Speak once.”

Your brain wants you to ask good questions. To understand what an organization is really looking for. I have recommended this simple exercise to many job seekers (and their brains). They have found it very useful.

The purpose is to find inconsistencies. Ask: “what are the three key criteria that will be used in selecting the candidate for this job?” Probe your possible employer by asking why. What you want to understand is whether or not they’ve put some thought behind the hiring process or do they have just a nice list.

Take notes obsessively and don’t throw them away.

Repeat the exercise every time -over the phone, in person, with another manager- as you get another interview.

Compare your notes. Look for contradictions and tensions. If there are some big watch-outs, casually share with your interviewer in your next meeting. See what happens.

When you are selected as “the” candidate, that’s the real moment of truth. Ask them to give you the top 3 reasons as to why you were selected. Compare that to the criteria that was shared with you through the interviewing process. Look for any gaps. Those gaps are a warning sign.

Inconsistencies can tell you about a company’s real intentions. It can be a signal of lack of internal alignment on what they are looking for. Or that they haven’t taken the time to understand what they want. Or, even worse, that what they “really” want is not what they are telling you.

When all is said and done, use your gut. You are smart. You can tell when people are not being truthful.

Be hired for who you are, not for how you will make a company look. Your unique style and perspective should amplify the company’s culture.

Join a company that will let you change things. Not one that simply talks about change.

Don’t scare the hell out of your brain. Don’t work for someone that expects you to leave your brain alone at home.

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