Hiring Advice for Seth Godin – Beware of Six Month Syndrome

By Michelle Malay Carter on May 8, 2008 

leapfrog.jpgWorking Interviews
Kris Dunn at HR Capitalist resurfaced an idea put forth by Seth Godin a while back – when interviewing a candidate, rather than chatting, you should make them work. Copywriters should copywrite. Widget designers should design widgets.

A Good Idea – With a Caveat, Hirer Beware
I have no problem with this, and like most interviewing techniques, this will help you in your quest not to under-hire. But it might backfire as I explained yesterday because it may cause you to overhire. Over qualified candidates would likely do really well under this circumstance.

The Sinister Six Month Syndrome
As a matter of fact, over qualified candidates usually do really well within organizations for about six months. Sadly, just about the time the manager is patting himself on the back for a hiring job well done, a shift occurs, and the candidate’s attitude may change. Extroverts may begin to “mouth off”; introverts may withdrawal.

What’s Happened?
Matching a person to a job has three components:
1. Knowledge, skills, experience – can they do the job?
2. Values and temperament – will they do the job?
3. Cognitive Capacity – could they do the job? (if the two other factors were in place)

Learning is Engaging
Six Month Syndrome is related to the third factor. Any new job will have a learning curve, even if you are experienced. You need to learn the culture, the people, the processes with the organization. When someone is overqualified in the cognitive capacity realm, the first six months they are traversing their learning curve, but due to their excess cognitive capacity, they’ll have most of their learning wrapped up at about six months. The job itself will no longer be challenging, and there is nothing worse than being bored at work. Our research shows this is a reality for about 1 in 5 people.

Micromanaging Up
Add to that fact that when you are over qualified, you are likely qualified to work at your manager’s job’s level so, suddenly, his work will be more attractive than yours.

Have you ever found a manager who enjoyed being told how to do his job? This is what we might call micromanaging up. Suddenly, your formerly admiring manager might start to experience you as a little arrogant, impatient, showy or disrespectful. The manager will now start wondering what to do about your attitude problem, as you won’t stop playing in his sandbox. Straighten up!

Follow the Leader
To add insult to injury, you won’t find your manager’s advice or leadership satisfying. His thinking won’t add value to yours, as you two are cognitive peers. Humans naturally seek leadership from those who are cognitively ahead of us. Within organizations when this is not our boss, it can be our manager’s manager. Unfortunately, going over the manager’s head for leadership is usually not well received within organizations either. Straighten up!

Let’s Avoid Overhiring
Overhiring is a no win situation for the candidate, the hiring manager, or the organization, but it happens 1 in 5 times. A clear understanding of work levels can cut down on this confusion.

I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s fix the system.

Have you ever been an attitude problem? Have you ever hired one?

Filed Under Employee Engagement, High Potential, Managerial Leadership, Requisite Organization, Talent Management, Work Levels


6 Responses to “Hiring Advice for Seth Godin – Beware of Six Month Syndrome”

  1. Will Pearce on May 8th, 2008 1:09 pm

    My first reaction to the this posting was to talk about the hiring process I’ve used for the past 16 years that depends heavily on “doing the work” (at least for professional positions).

    As soon as I got to the third paragraph, I got over that compulsion! I had never heard of the “Six Month Syndrome” before, but was amazed how well it matched up with one of my own personal rules of thumb–that it takes about six months to learn your way around a new job well enough to “know what you don’t know” and be able to ask good questions (i.e., the ones that lead to improvements, not just historical understanding).

    I know that sounds different than what Michelle’s talking about, but I guess it’s really just a corollary, as six months was usually the point where I really became a pain in the rear to my bosses (and even some peers) in almost every job I had. That pattern held until I became executive director of a statewide nonprofit, which was the job I enjoyed far more than any other I’d had to this point in my life (despite the hard work involved). As you can see, that matches up exactly with what Michelle describes in the “Learning is Engaging” section.

    While I’ve shared my “six month principle” with many others over the years (I’ve espoused it for about the past 10-12 years), I guess I’ve always unconsciously realized that it doesn’t apply to all jobs–I never shared it with factory floor workers (back when I had contact with them), but did share it with my secretary at my last job (she was hired three months before me, and was really operating more as an executive assistant/office manager, despite her vanilla title).

    This makes me wonder if I was accurately recognizing that the “Six Month” phenomenon only applied to some minimum level of work (2? 3?). Michelle, I’d be interested in your comments on that possibility (or else to tell me that I was just being an elitist snob ;-) ).

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on May 8th, 2008 2:41 pm

    Hi Will,

    Thanks for the comment. I named Six Month Syndrome based upon my observations. This blog post is purely anecdotal.

    Yes, I can remember having three-week syndrome with a summer job during college. Likely you are right that longer time span jobs would have longer syndrome times and shorter ones shorter.

    This would make for an interesting PhD research project.

    Good to hear from you.


    Michelle Malay Carter

  3. Chris Young on May 9th, 2008 10:22 am

    Michelle – this post as well as the one it builds off of – “The Dangers of Overhiring” – are fascinating. IMHO there is really nothing worse than being underemployed.

    What I’m curious about is this: If we seek to prevent overhiring for a position in an effort to avoid the attitude problems you so eloquently described in the whitepaper on your PeopleFit site aren’t we in danger of creating a shallow pool of talent to draw from in the future?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is how do we balance the present need of filling a position with the future talent and leadership needs of an organization.

    Given the attitude problem that can arise from being underemployed do you feel that the establishment of a clear career path for an individual can help in the acquisition of current talent with future org needs in mind?

    All this in mind, it really goes to show how truly strategic the hiring decisions an organization makes really are.

    -Chris Young

  4. Michelle Malay Carter on May 9th, 2008 2:25 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, this is why I’m glad I’m the consultant and not the executive struggling with keeping a talent pipeline balanced with keeping my current employees fully tapped.

    There might be times where a strategic decision to overhire might be made – for example if a growth strategy were in place and you are building your bench, but you can’t keep people in limbo very long.

    The research upon which our consulting is based recognizes that people mature in cognitive capability over time. Some mature faster than others, but the longitudinal research has produced cognitive maturation curves which can fairly accurately predict individual maturation rates. From that, you can determine when a person will be maturing into capability at the next level and will be ready for more challenging work. So all of that needs to be taken into consideration when doing talent planning.

    One key is to know who is underemployed and recognize them as such even if you can’t promote them immediately. We’ve found that just having the discussion with an underemployed employee can tone down their attitude. Then, if an organization can offer project work to fill out their job, that always helps too.

    Thanks for the questions. I don’t have all the answers, just considerations and research to plug into the talent planning process.



  5. Jennifer Kennedy on May 16th, 2008 3:58 pm

    A new job matching technology site launched this week, they claim to be able to match people with jobs based on skills and preferences so there is a more perfect fit. Venture Beat story here:


  6. Michelle Malay Carter on May 17th, 2008 1:02 pm

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the lead. I’ll have to check it out. It might be fodder for a future blog post.