Smart HR pros know the importance of continually questioning conventional wisdom. So here are a couple of intriguing arguments: Hiring only the brightest people is a bad idea. And firing your most successful performer is a good one.
Roger Martin, writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, recounted how he learned the painful lesson that a flat-out policy of hiring the smartest candidate isn’t always the best idea.
Martin said when he served as director of the strategy consulting firm Monitor, the company operated under the “thoroughly obnoxious catchphrase — ‘stupid is forever'”.
The company hired a bunch of top Harvard Business School grads — really smart people — “but they didn’t work out nearly as well as we expected, and some flamed out pretty spectacularly.”
Management initially attributed those failures to the usual cause: They had just failed to hire the right smart people. But then Martin read a story by Chris Argyris entitled Teaching Smart People How to Learn — and his viewpoint changed.
What Argyris’ story drove home to Martin was that rather than being open to absorbing new ideas, very bright people (because they know they’re very bright) rarely look to themselves when things go wrong.
“They look entirely outside themselves for the causes and blame outside forces — irrational clients, impossible time pressure, lack of adequate resources, shifts beyond their control,” Martin wrote. “Rather than learn from error, they doom themselves to repeat them.”
Sound like anybody in your organization?
High performance vs. maintaining culture
Our second piece of unconventional wisdom comes from Eric Sinoway, co-founder and president of Axcess Worldwide, also writing on the HBR blog.
He and his business partner had hired a new executive, and the guy was “doing what we had hired him to do: immediately deliver results.”
Problem was, the exec was too focused on “winning at all costs” — and that translated into consistently dismissing the opinions of others, apparently disregarding the idea of teamwork, and having an overall “detrimental impact on company culture.”
Sinoway and Harvard professor Howard Stevenson came up with a classification system for employees in Sinoway’s book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work.
Here’s what they came up with:
- Stars are the employees we all love — the ones who “do the right thing” (perform well) the “right way” (in a manner that supports and builds the desired organizational culture).
- High potentials are those whose behavior we value — who do things the right way but whose skills need further maturation or enhancement. With training, time, and support, these people are future stars.
- Zombies fail on both counts. Their behavior doesn’t align with the cultural aspirations of the organization and their performance is mediocre.
They are the proverbial dead wood. But their ability to inflict harm is mitigated by their lack of credibility.
- Vampires are the real threat. These employees perform well but in a manner that is at cross-purposes with desired organizational culture. Because their functional performance is strong, they acquire power and influence.
Soon, there’s a small army of vampires and zombies attacking the stars, high potentials and leaders who are doing the right thing.
Sinoway’s exec was judged to be a cultural vampire. He was — metaphorically speaking — eventually banished to Transylvania.
Once again, sound like anybody in your organization?