Racing to mediocrity: how to rationalize minus-one hiring

Published by Peter on

I recently heard through the grapevine that I was passed over for a job because I was the smartest, most talented, and most experienced candidate they had interviewed.

True story.

This news came from someone credible with inside knowledge of the discussions.

The interview process was not quick. Nor was it simple. I sat for multiple assessments. I was screened and re-screened by HR, then put through several rounds of interviews including the hiring manager, the position’s peers, and the department head.

Their process worked, in a way.

They identified the best candidate, and they identified the candidate they wanted to hire.

The fact that those were two different people is what I’m writing about today.

Plus-one hiring is complicated. Minus-one hiring is easier.

In my career, I’ve hired or been directly involved in hiring more than 30 people. Finding the right person can be complicated, but a lot of managers make it far more complicated than it needs to be.

I have never heard someone say, “I am looking for a person I can control, who doesn’t threaten my authority or self-esteem. I want someone mediocre so I can be confident of my own superiority and know they will feel both loyalty to me for hiring them, and fear that they could lose their job.”

But a lot of managers find ways to justify exactly that kind of hiring.

The goal should be “plus one” hiring. I can’t recall where I first heard that term, but the idea is simple: Hire people better than you. That way, every hire adds to the organization, which keeps it improving.

A lot of managers do just the opposite, though.

They hire someone that makes them feel comfortable. Someone that won’t threaten their authority or superior knowledge. Someone they can control. Someone who will look up to them. Someone who will be loyal to them.

Sounds cynical and obviously backwards, doesn’t it? It’s minus-one hiring.

But oh the marvelous human mind can find the most wonderful ways to rationalize bad decisions. One of my favorite English words is specious: an argument that seems on its surface to have merit, but which is actually false or wrong.

Another of my favorite words.

The many biases of minus-one hiring

Here are several of the specious rationalizations I’ve seen in the hiring process over the years:

  • Their knowledge is too specialized.
    Expertise should be valued, but so should generalists. Know what you really need, and don’t use an excuse like this to justify rejecting someone who’s more expert than you just because you feel threatened by their intelligence or knowledge.
  • I’m hiring for potential, not experience.
    Potential is great! We want people who will grow because as they get better, the organization gets better. On the other hand, this could be code for ageism—if you devalue experience, you may be passing over the best candidate because of their age. Or, you may be giving in to your own need for control by hiring someone inexperienced.
This is what happens when hiring for potential alone.
  • They’ll get bored and leave in a year.
    Is it really better to hire mediocrity because at least it will be reliable mediocrity? Even so, the biggest flaw in this is that anyone can leave in a year. They may get sick or move away or win the lottery. They may decide to start their own business. Or they may get tired of working for an organization that prizes reliable mediocrity.
  • They have a gap in their work history.
    This one is going away, thank goodness. Because it is often a cover for sexism. Women are overwhelmingly the stay-at-home parent or family caregiver, so worrying about a gap in work history has a disparate effect on women. Plus, if the person is top quality today, why do you care about what happened before?
  • We’re looking for a good fit with the team.
    This catchall phrase makes it easy to arbitrarily reject someone just because they make you feel uncomfortable. They have a strong accent. They’re the wrong gender or color. They have children. Instead of just writing someone off as not a great fit, consider whether your team could use some new perspective and diversity.

And of course there are many, many more. Humans have a wonderful capacity to make up rationalizations for bad decisions that calm our fears and sooth our egos.

Hiring is an opportunity for your own growth

Whenever you hire someone, you’re not just filling an empty chair. You’ve got an opportunity to reexamine yourself and your own biases.

If your response to a candidate is, “This person is really fantastic, but…” then you should pause and really dive into the words that come after “but.”

Whatever those words are, how might they be lying to you? How might they be holding you back from possibly challenging yourself to grow?

Bringing someone new onto the team isn’t just an opportunity to diversify the team. It’s also an opportunity for you to stretch your own skills, knowledge, awareness, and effectiveness.

In my career, I’ve had the great pleasure of managing many people who were superior to me in many ways. More expert at their jobs. Faster thinkers. More creative in their problem-solving. Higher bandwidth. Better educated.

My job was never to be better than my employees. My job was to manage the team to successful outcomes.

To do that effectively, you have to understand your own capabilities and limitations, you have to know what your fear points are, and you have to be willing to confront and overcome those fear points.

Otherwise, you may end up institutionalizing reliable mediocrity. Is that really what you want?

I can help

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. How would you like to be better, or prepare for the next step in your career?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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