Why Leaders Should Hire Their Opposites

A lot was written about the need of hiring people that will support the culture you are trying to build. So called cultural fit. And a lot was written about inclusion and diversity with the idea being that the more diverse team the better for creativity, innovation and productivity. I will leave aside the problem of how do you reconcile these two ideas and focus today on how you as a leader can personally benefit from hiring people who are very different from you.

Cognitive biases

Based on popular psychology our perception of reality and our decisions are influenced by a wide array of cognitive biases. Here are couple of them very relevant to your ability to hire the right people to your team:

  • Stereotyping – happens when you attribute specific traits or expected behaviors to a candidate based only on them belonging to a certain group without having actual information about that individual.
  • Social comparison bias – nudges you to be wary of candidates who may compete with your particular strengths.
  • Status quo bias – urges you to hire candidates similar to the ones you already have on the team to preserve the social equilibrium and things to stay the same.
  • Ingroup bias – pushes you to attribute positive traits and give preferential treatment to candidates who you perceive to be from “your group”. This can be people with similar educational or cultural background, from the same school, town, class, etc. You are essentially following this logic, “hey we went to the same school, the best school in the universe, of course you are a great fit to my team”
  • Halo effect – probably the most frequently quoted bias that makes you transfer positive or negative traits you observe in a candidate in one area to another area even if they are in no way connected. For example, “this guys has a nice shoes… he must be great… at selling software.”
  • Fundamental attribution error – this one, especially when combined with Ingroup bias and Stereotyping, leads you to put bigger emphasis on personality-based explanations for observed behavior of the candidate and dismissing the environmental and situational influence. It may lead to this type of thinking, “so you were laid off, [from a company that just released hundred people,] you must have been selected because of poor performance.”

Why do I mention these? They are always with you and if you are not careful, they will result in you hiring your clones. You can easily end up having a team fully staffed with a little bit less smart versions of you and that is not a recipe for success of the team. What is worse, this leads to a situation where everyone on the team has the same opinions, you have a team of yes-men. You may have built a friction free environment that is very comfortable, but it doesn’t challenge you or anyone else on the team to grow.

How to build your team

As a leader you want to build a team that will get the job done, but you also want to build a team that will help you to grow as a person and as a leader since your better performance will again lead to the better performance of the team.

  • Hire to fill gaps in the team – I talked about it in How To Hire A Strong Software Development Team. You shouldn’t hire individuals, you should build teams. What I mean is that all of us have some strengths and weaknesses and you want your team to cover all the bases. For example, if you build software, you want someone on your team to be great at front-end user interface, some great at databases, some at backend logic, you want someone with good communication skills to talk to customers, etc. You don’t need every single person to have all these skills, but you want the team members to complement each other
  • Hire to offset your weaknesses – it is very similar with your own strengths and weaknesses. You should look for people who will fill the gap in areas you are bad at. The thing is, it is very likely that these people will be very different from you. They can’t be your clones. If you believe there is nothing you are bad at, then chances are you suffer from whole lot of cognitive biases, your judgement is impaired and you shouldn’t be in management in the first place.
  • Hire for critical skills – when designing a job profile don’t list all the skills and behaviors you can imagine as must-haves. Be very clear what is the critical skill or skills that you need to fill a gap in your team and to patch your weakness but leave the rest as optional. I described this hiring mentality in Hire For Strengths, Not Lack Of Weaknesses.
  • Hire for attitudes – as I mentioned in Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge give proportionally higher importance to attitudes of the person and their capacity to learn. Ignore what their previous job was about, what school they attended, who were they born to and when, but rather try to understand whether their core values are aligned with the company’s and whether they can learn and adapt.
  • Hire to learn – when I’m hiring people to my team I always ask myself one question. “Is there something I can learn from this person?” If the answer is “no”, I tend to be very careful with extending the offer. Very often the answer is “yes”. The reasoning follows closely the previous point. I want to hire people who will supplement me in the area of my weakness and that means I can get better by tapping their area of strength.
  • Hire to get challenged and to grow – I strongly believe that the only way you can grow is by getting out of your comfort zone and get challenged. When I look at my management career the most progress in becoming better at managing people happened when I had on my team someone who was very different from me and challenged me regularly. I had to rethink my approach on how to manage people quite a lot and I always learned a lot from these encounters. I must admit that not all of them ended up well, but the lessons learned definitely stuck with me. Since I’m fairly introverted person the biggest challenge for me always was managing extreme extroverts especially when they are overconfident. I was even told by one such person that “you don’t know how to deal with me.” And he was right. Even though I was the boss, I felt very uncomfortable in our interactions and it took me some time to learn how to manage this person. This one person helped me greatly to improve my ability to manage people.

Everything in moderation

When I look at the example from my experience about hiring someone who was so much stronger personality than me that it overwhelmed me, I wouldn’t do it again. It was a useful experience that I learned a lot from, but it was almost too much for me to cope with and ultimately hurt the team. So yes, you should hire your opposites, but make sure you are still able to handle the relationship so it doesn’t burn you out or destroys the team.

 

Do you subscribe to the described notion that you should hire your opposites? How do you create a harmony in a team that consists of diverse individuals? Is there a better way for you as a leader to grow and learn?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.