How to recruit the brain’s natural motivational cycle—the power of fit-to-role.
People learn and work better when the challenges they face in their roles are just right—when there is good fit-to-role. Improving fit-to-role requires achieving an optimal balance between an individual’s level of skill and role requirements. When employers get this balance right, they increase engagement, happiness (satisfaction), quality of communication, productivity, and even cultural health.
Here’s how it works.
In the workplace, the challenges we’re expected to face should be just big enough to allow for success most of the time, but not so big that frequent failure is inevitable. My colleagues and I call this balance-point the Goldilocks zone, because it’s where the level of challenge is just right. Identifying the Goldilocks zone is important for three reasons:
First, and most obviously, it’s not good for business if people make too many mistakes.
Second, if the distance between employees’ levels of understanding and the difficulty of the challenges they face is too great, employees are less likely to understand and learn from their mistakes. This kind of gap can lead to a vicious cycle, in which, instead of improving or staying the same, performance gradually deteriorates.
Third, when a work challenge is just right we’re more likely to enjoy ourselves—and feel motivated to work even harder. This is because challenges in the Goldilocks zone, allow us to succeed just often enough to stimulate our brains to release pleasure hormones called opioids. Opioids give us a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. And they have a second effect. They also trigger the release of dopamine—the striving hormone—which motivates us to reach for the next challenge (so we can experience the satisfaction of success once again).
The dopamine-opioid cycle will repeat indefinitely in a virtuous cycle, but only when enough of our learning challenges are in the zone—not too easy and not too hard. As long as the dopamine-opioid cycle keeps cycling, we feel engaged. Engaged people are happy people—they tend to feel satisfied, competent, and motivated. 
People are also happier when they feel they can communicate effectively and build understanding with those around them. When organizations get fit-to-role right for every member of a team, they’re also building a team with members who are more likely to understand one another. This is because the complexity level of role requirements for different team members are likely to be very similar. So, getting fit to role right for one team member means building a team in which members are performing within a complexity range that makes it relatively—but not too—easy for members to understand one another. Team members are happiest when they can be confident that—most of the time and with reasonable effort—they will be able to achieve a shared understanding with other members.
A team representing a diversity of perspectives and skills, composed of individuals performing within a complexity range of 10–20 points on the Lectical Scale is likely to function optimally.
Getting fit-to-role right, also ensures that line managers are slightly more complex thinkers than their direct reports. People tend to prefer leaders they can look up to, and most of us intuitively look up to people who think a little more complexly than we do.  When it comes to line managers, If we’re as skilled as they are, we tend to wonder why they’re leading us. If we’re more skilled than they are, we are likely to feel frustrated. And if they’re way more skilled than we are, we may not understand them fully. In other words, we’re happiest when our line managers challenge us—but not too much. (Sound familiar?)
Most people work better with line managers who perform 15–25 points higher on the Lectical Scale than they do.
Unsurprisingly, all this engagement and happiness has an impact on productivity. Individuals work more productively when they’re happily engaged. And teams work more productively when their members communicate well with one another.
The moral of the story
The moral of this story is that employee happiness and organizational effectiveness are driven by the same thing—fit-to-role. We don’t have to compromise one to achieve the other. Quite the contrary. We can’t achieve either without achieving fit-to-role.
To sum up, when we get fit to role right—in other words, ensure that every employee is in the zone—we support individual engagement & happiness, quality communication in teams, and leadership effectiveness. Together, these outcomes contribute to productivity and cultural health.
Getting fit-to-role right requires top-notch recruitment and people development practices, starting with the ability to measure the complexity of (1) role requirements and (2) people skills.
When my colleagues and I think about the future of recruitment and people development, we envision healthy, effective organizations characterized by engaged, happy, productive, and constantly developing employees & teams. We help organizations achieve this vision by…
- reducing the cost of recruitment so that best practices can be employed at every level in an organization;
- improving predictions of fit-to- role;
- broadening the definition of fit-to-role to encompasses the role, the team, and the position of a role in the organizational hierarchy; and
- promoting the seamless integration of recruitment with employee development strategy and practice.
 Csikszentmihalyi, M., Flow, the psychology of happiness. (2008) Harper-Collins.
 Oishi, S., Koo, M., & Akimoto, S. (2015) Culture, interpersonal perceptions, and happiness in social interactions, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 34, 307–320.
 Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., & Sgroi, D. (2015). Happiness and productivity. Journal of labor economics, 33, 789-822.