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Before going into the specifics of why people take certain jobs and how to build a value proposition for your company, it’s useful to have a basic understanding of a few models of decision-making.
The first idea to understand is that people are not always strictly rational. As much as this affects you when making hiring decisions, it also affects job-seekers. You might unfairly reject a candidate who doesn’t “feel right,” but it’s a legitimate part of the recruiting process to try to appeal to both the hearts and minds of candidates.
If you’d like a more formal basis for the psychology of decision-making, the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman breaks our thinking processes down into two “systems.” System 1 operates fast and automatically using heuristics and emotions, but is prone to mistakes and biases. System 2, on the other hand, is slower—it is more deliberate, rational, and requires conscious effort. But System 2 is also prone to behaving irrationally. For instance, System 2 is really good at crafting “after-the-fact” stories to justify System 1’s conclusions (this is known as confabulating, and there have been interesting scientific experiments to demonstrate its startling power).
There are other similar models that psychologists have written about—for instance, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a rider on top of an elephant, which represents the unconscious mind in the book The Happiness Hypothesis. But for the purposes of this Guide and of understanding decision-making, we recommend, at the very least, reading a summary of Thinking Fast and Slow to familiarize yourself with the two-system model and understand the different biases that we are all prone to.
Next, it’s important to be aware that there are certain patterns of behavior that can influence us in irrational ways. A great read on this topic is the book Influence, by Robert Cialdini, in which he discusses six different principles of persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus (summarized here). Cialdini gives examples of how each of these principles can be “weaponized” to influence others’ decision-making. When hiring, you should definitely not use these principles as weapons to manipulate— because it’s unethical, and furthermore, even if you do succeed at tricking someone into joining a company that’s not a good fit for them, the result will be detrimental to both parties. But, you can use these principles to reinforce your value proposition to candidates (and perhaps more importantly, avoid making mistakes that cause these principles to work against you).
Joining a company is a high-stakes decision, both materially and emotionally. So for most people, it will involve gut-level Systems 1 instinctual thinking as well as deliberate (sometimes agonizing) Systems 2 considerations. This means that not only are people’s needs complex, specific, and situational, it’s also not easy to fully understand them (even for the candidate). But when recruiting, you still need to try, even if that sometimes means helping candidates develop clarity about what they really want while also educating them about your opportunities and what your company can offer. It will be difficult, but your recruiting process should speak to both the rational and the irrational reasons people change jobs or join companies. Sometimes, when you’re talking to candidates, you’ll feel their System 1 and System 2 tugging at each other (their rational mind wants to join one company, but their gut or heart is leaning elsewhere). And you should be aware that, even with the best intentions, candidates won’t always communicate the truth about what they want.
As a final, often-overlooked note on how people make big decisions: they rarely make them in a vacuum. Often, the decisions they make will be shaped by those around them. Younger candidates may face pressure or expectations from their parents (for instance, to join a large, well-known company). Candidates with families will (we hope!) consult with their partner, especially if a new job will affect their work-life balance or income or require a move. And any candidate may be influenced by their friends or mentors, which can be a particularly potent force if those friends or mentors work at the company they’re considering joining.