“Hire only the best.”

If you’ve ever been a manager—and even if you haven’t—it’s likely you’ve come to believe that it’s crucial for a manager to attract and recruit only the best possible talent.

Jim Collins certainly seems to think so. He’s the author of numerous best-selling management advice books, and in one of those, Good to Great (2001) he writes: “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” Nor is he alone in thinking this way.[1]

Furthermore, Collins argues that successful companies…

“…first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus…and then figured out where to drive it.”

In other words, he seems to believe that who you hire may be even more important than what your company ultimately decides to do.

So for this installment of Unconventional (Mis)management Non-wisdom, I’d like to do away with this well-worn management myth:

That in order to succeed in business, you need to focus on hiring only “the best and the brightest.”


Only “rock stars” need apply?

What got me thinking about this particular pearl of management wisdom was an article recently posted at Inc.com titled “Why ‘Only Hire Rock Stars’ Is Horrible Advice.

It’s written by Michael Del Ponte, a cofounder of Soma, a company that makes “sustainable, plant-based water filters” for personal use. In it, he urges hiring managers to beware the “rock star interviewee” – someone who interviews well, and thus comes across as more competent or better suited for the position than they actually are. Nor should you be seduced by the “rock star resume”, he warns—someone who is actually very well-qualified (at least on paper), but nevertheless not a good fit for your company, or its “culture,” for whatever the reason.

Both are valid points, to be sure. But they’re not really condemnations of “rock star” employees per se. Instead, Del Ponte simply seems to be cautioning readers not to fall prey to those candidates who appear to be rock stars—“posers,” so to speak—or those who might have been high achievers somewhere else.

Hiring true “rock stars” would still seem to be something to shoot for.


Beware the “super-chicken”

A far more convincing counter-argument to the “hire only the best”-mentality is offered by Margaret Heffernan.

She’s a successful business leader, and author of The Naked Truth (2004) – a book that describes the experiences of women in the workplace, and the unique ways in which they contribute to organizations.

In a recent TEDTalk titled “Forget the pecking order at work,” Heffernan explains precisely why hiring all “superstars” is a mistake. She bases her argument on a study of chickens (yes, chickens) and egg production conducted by William Muir of Purdue University.[2] Specifically, he and his colleagues compared the output of a flock of average chickens, with that of a flock of “super-chickens” – those that had been bred specifically for high egg production. And the results were perhaps surprising:

The former flock thrived, while the latter pecked each other to death.

In other words, so-called “super-chickens” didn’t do so well when they were forced to cohabitate. Their competitiveness got the best of them. Or as Ms. Heffernan eloquently put it:

“The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest” (1:19).

Now chickens are one thing, of course, and human beings quite another. But these conclusions have been born out in a least one study of homo sapiens, as Heffernan goes on to point out.[3] In examining the “collective intelligence” of groups with respect to performance of certain tasks, Professor Thomas Malone of MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that:

“…the average individual intelligence of the group members was not a significant predictor of group performance” (p. 688).

In other words, just because a group of people had a bunch of high performers in it didn’t mean the group would be high-performing as well. No less surprising, they found that those groups who had just one or two high performers— or “rock stars”, “super-chickens”, or whatever you want to call them—didn’t do all that well either.

In fact, just the opposite.

Groups of average performers tended to consistently outperform these other two groups when it came to accomplishing a variety of tasks. (Indeed, Malone and his colleagues found that other factors were predictive of group performance.[4])

So all the pains you might be taking to “hire only the best”?

Well, that may not be what’s best for your company.




[1] For example: “NetFlix Has No Rules Because They Hire Great People” by Kevin Kruse. Sept 5, 2016, from Forbes.com. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2016/09/05/netflix-has-no-rules-because-they-hire-great-people/#3811b6686e3e; “Hire Great People: Ten Simple Rules” by Barbara Rheinhold from Monster.com. http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/recruiting-hiring-advice/job-screening-techniques/hiring-great-people.aspx; “9 Tips for Hiring Great People” by Bill Murphy Jr. Feb. 28, 2014, from Inc.com. http://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/9-tips-for-hiring-great-people.html.

[2] Muir, William M., and H. Wei Cheng. “Genetic influences on the behavior of chickens associated with welfare and productivity.” Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, 2nd edn. Academic Press (Elsevier) San Diego, California (2013): 317-359. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4L3dMJ8-aWgC&oi=fnd&pg=PA317&dq=Genetics+and+the+behavior+of+chickens+2013+Muir&ots=nxgt3zl-WD&sig=8pe1o0v0tjK7otRGa5yQfFCSukI#v=onepage&q=Genetics%20and%20the%20behavior%20of%20chickens%202013%20Muir&f=false.

[3] Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). “Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups.” Science, 330(6004), 686-688. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/70c1/88413dd80ab45fb8d404994e0f0f2b703abd.pdf.

[4] Three factors were found to correlate positively with collective intelligence: (1) average social sensitivity to others, (2) a willingness on the part of group members to give everyone an equal hearing, and (3) the number of women in the group (that is, groups with more women tended to perform better); Ibid., p. 688.