Motivational Fit: Finding the right person for the job

Why do some people enjoy a job and stay with it for years, while others seem unhappy and eventually leave? Or they stay on but complain, come to work late and call in sick more than others?

Even when the pay is good compared to other local opportunities and the benefits are excellent, even when the scheduling is flexible and the coworkers are congenial, some people just won't be happy in a certain job. It's not because there is something wrong with the person or the job. Sometimes there just isn't the right fit.

Social psychologists call this phenomenon "motivational fit," and define it as the degree of alignment between what a person expects or wants from a job, and what the job can actually offer. They say it is a primary component in determining whether a person will remain on the job.

Intrinsic factors have a significantly greater impact than extrinsic factors.

Lack of motivational fit may not result in poor performance of the work itself but is likely to result in "withdrawal behaviors," such as tardiness, absenteeism, use of sick days, and short tenure. Therefore, if you want to reduce staff turnover, the most effective strategy you can follow is to make sure you hire people with the right motivational fit for the position.

Even if we aren't familiar with the term, we intuitively consider motivational fit in some hiring decisions. We seek outgoing people to be cashiers, sensing that painfully shy introverts might be conscientious but would not enjoy the work and would not serve customers well. When we hire for a produce position starting at 5 AM, we look for a "morning person" who flourishes on the early shift, knowing that a "night person" who likes to stay up late would have to make a wrenching change in lifestyle to accommodate to the job. By applying this intuitive process more consciously throughout all departments, you can increase the probability of hiring people who will stay on the job, and thus avoid costly turnover.

In this article I'll analyze typical retail co-op jobs in terms of certain "fit factors," and I'll suggest interview questions that will help you determine whether there is alignment between the nature of the job and an applicant's expectations.

You must also look at previous work history. If an applicant has worked in other positions requiring intense customer contact or close cooperation with coworkers, then at least she knows what she's getting into. Still, this doesn't automatically mean that she's figured out for herself what she needs for motivational fit. That's where interview questions can help.

Research on motivational fit has identified key factors in determining alignment between the person and the job. These can be grouped into intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The former are inherent to the work itself, (e.g. variety, autonomy, interdependence) while the latter describe the work environment, (e.g. compensation, supervisor's style, schedule, commute.) In general, intrinsic factors have a significantly greater impact than extrinsic. In other words, for work that he finds inherently enjoyable and stimulating, an employee will put up with low pay, a long commute, a hard schedule, even a negative relationship with a boss. This is not to say that none of those extrinsic factors matters. But they don't carry the weight of intrinsic factors.

Intrinsic factors in motivational fit

Intensity of customer contact

Almost everyone working in retail has to be comfortable with frequent customer contact. However, cashiers and customer service desk staff experience intense customer contact throughout their whole shifts. Cooks working in a kitchen and only filling in on the counter for lunch rush don't have much contact. Bookkeepers probably don't have to deal with customers in person at all.

Tell me about a past job where you were in contact with customers all day long. What did you enjoy about it? What were the challenges for you?

Variety of tasks

Some people are happiest when they can focus on one task while others like to have constant variety. Some have higher tolerance for repetitive tasks than others. Most retail work involves considerable repetition, although it never resembles assembly line work. Just dealing with individual customers injects a certain amount of variety for cashiers who are expected to solve problems at the register or for stockers who are expected to answer questions in the aisles. Floor managers or shift supervisors have to be able to handle a great deal of variety. Cross-training offers more opportunities for variety than a job in any one department.

Tell me about a typical day on your last job. What kinds of tasks did you do? Which did you enjoy most?

Degree of autonomy from supervision

Historically co-ops have attracted antiauthoritarian types who resisted the concept of management. At the same time, people who need constant supervision create another set of problems. If cashiers have to get a manager's OK for voids, if cooks have to produce food according to a preplanned menu, then you would look for people who prefer a structured work setting where they are basically told what to do. Even if cashiers have the discretion to handle all refunds and cooks get to choose what they will make each day, they still need to accept the fact that they have a supervisor who is empowered to intervene when s/he deems it necessary. Those in a management level position, or those in the lead on marketing and member services, need to be comfortable with making decisions for themselves and justifying them later.

Tell me about a work situation where you were mostly on your own without much supervision. Tell me about a time when you didn't agree with a supervisor's decision. How did you handle the situation?

Pressure to meet deadlines

There are those who only perform up to potential under intense pressure, while others fall apart. Cashiers have no deadlines, they get to go home after their shift, but they do have the pressure of waiting register lines. Morning grocery stockers and produce workers need to work quickly to get their departments ready for store opening. Buyers have to call in orders by deadlines. None of this, however, is like getting a daily paper to press or working in an emergency room. Adrenaline junkies might get bored.

Tell me about a job where you were under time pressure to get work done. What happened if you didn't meet the deadlines?

Degree of interdependence with coworkers

If a job requires close cooperation with colleagues, that could be a pleasure to some, a trial to others. All retail work is interdependent--the A/P bookkeeper needs the invoices from the buyers on time, the buyers need the stockers to get the product out, the cashiers need the registers programmed with the right prices, etc. Within this context, there are variations in the degree of teamwork demanded. Cashiers aren't as impacted by their coworkers as cooks and deli counter staff, for instance. In small co-ops where a single buyer does all the purchasing, receiving and stocking for a department, teamwork is not as important as in a larger store with multi-person departments. Still, "Lone Rangers" will have problems as their co-op grows and the work becomes more interdependent.

Describe a past job where your work depended closely on the work of others. What was enjoyable about that and what was frustrating?

Feedback: tracking own performance vs. getting feedback from others

People with a high need to get feedback in personal form, whether from supervisors, coworkers and/or customers, will probably flourish in retail. People who just want to look at the scorecard, who find their reinforcement from "the numbers," may not enjoy working at a co-op store as much as they would, say, commission sales or self-employment. However, buyers who welcome both personal feedback and reports on their sales, margin and inventory turns, would be a good fit for the job.

In what form do you like to get recognition? Tell me about a job where you felt your achievements were well recognized.

Part vs. whole task

While some people are content to contribute their part to a larger effort, others are not satisfied unless they carry out a project from start to finish and know it is truly their own accomplishment. Cooks can produce a dish, produce workers can set up the stand, stockers can build an end cap, and for a moment at least they can feel a sense of ownership and individual pride in their work. A lot of front end and deli counter work, however, involves parts of tasks, not whole ones. Since these two departments tend to have high turnover in co-ops, it's worth looking for motivational fit in this particular factor.

Tell me about a past job where you worked with a number of other people on an ongoing task that was never done. Now tell me about a situation where you completed something on your own, that was solely your responsibility. Which job did you prefer?

Extrinsic factors in motivational fit

Physical work environment

Some people would put up with a lot to be able to work outside. Others like working in an office where they don't have to get too physical. Still others would rather not sit all day and prefer moving around doing physical tasks. In a small co-op everyone has to be motivated to work out on the floor. In a larger store there will be some office positions. Outdoor-lovers will probably never be reconciled to working in a store.

In your past jobs, what physical working conditions have you enjoyed the most?


Here's where we find out if we're looking at a "morning person," a "nine-to-fiver," or a "night owl."

What schedules have you worked in other jobs? Which did you find fit in the best with the rest of your life? On a day when you don't have to work, what time do you like to get up?

Level of compensation

Money isn't everything, but it's part of the picture of motivational fit. Be direct about what the job pays, when pay raises are considered, and what it takes to make more money over time at the co-op. If future raises depend on how well the co-op does financially, be straight about that. If benefits such as medical and dental insurance, retirement and paid time off depend on hours worked, and if the required number of hours are not always available, be up front about that, too. It's better to lose qualified applicants in the interview than to hire them, train them and lose them later over unrealistic expectations about pay increases.

The starting pay for this job is ___ and pay is reviewed every 6 months, with the amount of increase depending on performance. People who have worked over a year in this job whose performance is satisfactory are making around ___. Does this meet your needs?

Promotion opportunities

Sometimes people take an entry-level job in the hope that they can get their "foot in the door" for higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs. Moreover, opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge on the job has been cited again and again in studies as the single most desirable job attribute sought by younger workers. Applicants need a realistic picture of what they can expect over time at the co-op.

What kind of work would you see yourself doing a year from now at the co-op?

Supervisory style

The "fit" between supervisor and employee is an aspect of motivational fit. For example, a process-oriented employee will get frustrated with a results-oriented supervisor and a high-involvement, "hands-on" supervisor will have conflicts with an employee who says "Just leave me along to do my job!" You know your own style as a supervisor. Find out what the employee is looking for.

Which supervisors have you found easiest to work with? Which were most difficult? Why?

Commuting distance

Sometimes people think they are willing to drive any distance to the job of their dreams from the home of their dreams. If most of the intrinsic factors for motivational fit are met, they are probably right. However, it's worth asking them how long the trip will take and whether they've ever commuted this distance before.

Some general questions that can help you ascertain motivational fit:

  • What part of your work has given you the greatest feeling of achievement and satisfaction?
  • What part has been most frustrating and unsatisfying?
  • Have you ever worked as a [open position] before?
  • What did you like most about it?
  • What did you like least about it?
  • Why did you leave that job?
  • What would interest you in a similar position?

Too often managers focus on whether an applicant has the needed skills rather than whether there is motivational fit between the person and the job. If you establish motivational fit first, you're more likely to hire someone who will stay and flourish on the job.

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