Hiring for Cultural Fit is Overrated: A Case for Giving Talented Jerks a Chance

June 5, 2015

Michael Jordan, as a teammate, could probably best be described in one word: jerk.

He was infamous for screaming at his fellow players, demanding the impossible as his legendary competitive fire often got the best of him. There are even at least three documented examples of Jordan punching a teammate during a practice, including 7-foot, 250-pound center Will Perdue.

Jordan would never get hired in the multitude of companies today that say cultural fit is their number-one criteria. And yet, he is seen as the best basketball player ever, who led his Chicago Bulls to six championships.

While he’s perhaps the most famous case, Jordan is far from being alone. Babe Ruth, regarded as the best baseball player ever, was a frat boy lout who allegedly slept with Lou Gehrig’s, his best teammate, wife. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal hated each other to the point they never talked, and all they did was win three consecutive NBA championships.

The point is in sports, teams that are talented and determined win championships. Meanwhile, players getting along with each other and going out to dinners after a game as a unit has rarely been a recipe for success.

Ironically enough, the two best business people of the past fifty years – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – weren’t exactly about singing Kumbaya by the fireside either. Their tempers are legendary, as both were known as hard-charging, win-at-all-cost dictators who put impossible demands on their people.

The point

In business today, companies have strict “no-jerk” policies where they try to filter out the very people described in the first part of this piece. Their goal is to have a bunch of nice people who can get along and do fun things with each other, like celebrate Christmas in July or petting puppies.

Conversely, in athletics, teams almost never care about that sort of thing. Yes, there are examples of bad attitudes sinking teams. But, 95 percent of the time, the team with the most talent and the most drive is holding the championship trophy at the end of the season, regardless of how well the players got along with each other.

The point? I get it, nobody wants to work with a jerk everyday. Someone who is challenging, someone who puts winning above all else can be exhausting to work with, even if they are supremely talented.

And yet, there are countless examples of those types of people being the fuel that carries a team to a championship, or pushes a business to unprecedented prosperity. In sports, and often even in business, rarely does how well the people get along correlate to success.

So maybe some jerks are needed in a company. Maybe it’s good to have people who are demanding, who disrupt the status quo and aren’t constantly hampered by an inner desire to keep peace just for the sake of avoiding conflict.

Maybe all this screening for personality or “how weird a person is” goes too far, to the point organizations are creating a network of nice, gentle people who work within the rules. Maybe the key to success is hiring a few people who are willing to break those rules, even if they can be a bit exhausting to deal with.

Maybe, just maybe, a company should try to hire mostly nice people. But maybe sprinkling in a few jerks might not be a bad idea, either.

* image by Mike Blake, Reuters file

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