Organizational Image

An Applicant with Many Faces

After years of endless work and sleepless nights, those droll meetings with countless venture capitalists, you’ve finally obtained the funding you need to bring your start-up out of your dreams and into reality. You’ve even used your own money to pay the deposit and first month's lease on that small, but impressive working space on the higher floors of a building downtown. Coming from the investment banking industry, you’ve desperately tried to pull away from the stuffy “up or out” atmosphere. You and your founding partners envision a workplace where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes, where everyone can truly be themselves and succeed on their own terms.  

You send out job posting after job posting, using the same words that successfully sold your venture to all those financial backers just a few weeks before:

Come work with the brightest rising stars in the industry. Founded by three of the youngest investment bankers from the top Ivy League schools, we would like you to come join in our award winning start-up, which was just voted the smartest young company of the year. We need you and your best ideas. All positions are open, apply today!

As expected, applications come flooding in. You find it strange that many applicants are listing their GPAs and standardized test scores even though you never asked for them, but you shrug it off. After a few months, you’ve found that your small team has developed some serious problems. The new hires are afraid to ask for help and often hide their mistakes. Those that do well develop an elitist attitude and ignore the advice from anyone below their position. Suffering from an increasingly high turnover rate, you bring in an external trainer to help your employees maximize their potential, but there seems to be little interest.

What went wrong?

While the image of an elite start-up comprised of the smartest individuals successfully sold many investors in funding this hypothetical start-up, the founder made a mistake by using the same image to attract applicants while scaling up. It is well studied that the perceived image of an organization often attracts those who share the same traits (Highhouse & Lievens, 2003). The founder had envisioned an incremental environment for the start-up, in which motivation and willingness to learn are most important. However, by stressing the founders’ intelligence and high level of accomplishments instead of a nurturing environment, the job posting may have inadvertently attracted those with an entity mindset, in which “genius and brilliance [are] more highly valued relative to one’s passion for growth and learning” (Murphy & Dweck, 2010, p. 284). This then created an entity environment in the start-up where team members were afraid to admit to problems or make use of the development opportunities as it may make them seem less bright or successful. Those at the top came to believe that their success was due to their superior intellect and would look down on less successful employees.

But surely not everyone who applied had an entity mindset?

It is not surprising that applicants who do not share the same mindset as the organization may change their self-presentation during the application and interview process in order to better fit that of the organization; this change may actually be unknowingly internalized by the applicant. If hired by the organization, this internalization may cause the employee to utilize the same mindset in evaluating future employees, even if they personally have the opposing mindset (Murphy & Dweck, 2010). In this hypothetical situation, the internalization of an entity mindset may lead to a cycle of hiring more employees of the same mindset.

Lessons learned

While the hypothetical start-up introduced in the beginning may be an extreme example, it illustrates the importance of congruence between your organizational image and your vision of your organizational environment. If you are aiming for an entity environment in your organization, then definitely aim at promoting intelligence and accomplishment above all else when recruiting for employees. However, if you envision building an incremental environment for your organization, then recruitment materials as well as the general image of your organization should reflect that of a place where success comes with trial and error and where leaders and team members both learn from each other.

References

Highhouse, S., & Lievens, F. (2003). The relation of instrumental and symbolic attributes to a company’s attractiveness as an employer. Personnel Psychology, 56(1), 75–102. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2003.tb00144.x

Murphy, M. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2010). A culture of genius: how an organization’s lay theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 283–296. http://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209347380