Do firms really want spiky people?

Stefan Stern sums up the attitude of most companies to employees who are a bit off-the-wall in his FT piece, “Give us mavericks – just don’t let them run anything“.

Time was when employers used to say they wanted people with ‘balanced profiles’. Steady people with nothing in their characters or their pasts that might frighten the horses. Actually, no-one cares about the horses, it’s the board and the City they don’t want spooked.

More recently, though, there has been talk of wanting people with ‘spiky profiles’, people who are a bit edgy and who challenge the status quo. Firms worried about being left behind want to recruit more entrepreneurial types and people with ‘flair’. Even the public sector has been infected by this. There is even talk of entrepreneurship in the NHS.

But when most large organisations recruit these maverick types, they almost immediately start to piss people off. It’s not surprising that the Kingston University study, referred to in the FT, found a mismatch between the sort of people senior execuitives say they want and the people they are comfortable about having in their organisations. 

The trouble with mavericks is that they are difficult to manage. They ask awkward questions, they don’t conform to established ways of doing things, they break rules, or worse, try to re-write rules and, above all, they make people feel uncomfortable. And people don’t like to feel uncomfortable at work.

The longer you have been in a company and the more senior you are within its ranks, the greater the likelihood that you feel comfortable in that organisation. Therefore, when a maverick comes in and starts shaking things up, it is the more senior people who are most likely to feel put out by some of the things he or she says and does. For this reason, organisational cultures often spit the mavericks out. A friend of mine likens it to a body rejecting a transplant.

Executives in most large organisations are prepared to tolerate mediocre performance and significant inefficiencies for the sake of avoiding unease or discomfort. That’s why so many of them wait until the last possible minute before tackling performance issues by which time, of course, it is often too late. Mavericks, though, present the opposite problem. They create discomfort just by being there.

A few years ago I did some work for an organisation that very rarely sacked people. The managers preferred to let the poor performers chug on, provided they didn’t bother anyone. Then a new senior executive was recruited to help the company move into a new market. He ruffled feathers almost from his first day by asking difficult questions, ignoring procedures and openly criticising much of what ad already been done. He was ‘managed out’ of the organisation before the year was out.

For mavericks, the normal discomfort equation works in reverse. Usually, it is uncomfortable to fire someone but if the discomfort caused by the spiky person is greater than that which an executive would feel when sacking him, then delivering the coup de grace becomes that much easier.

This tendency becomes even more marked when a company is in difficulty or there is an economic downturn. Such dangers make companies more conservative. Just at the point when, perhaps, they should consider doing something different, they go back to what they know. The world is just too dangerous to try anything different. So, if the firm was tolerating the nutter with the good ideas up until now, they might not do so for much longer. The heightened nervousness of the other executives may start to blind them to his contributions. His strange behaviour and refusal to conform is more likely to be seen as just more stress that the rest of the team don’t need.

Again, I saw this sort of retrenchment during the mini-downturn we had a few years ago. A number of the wackos I know who now run their own firms left their employers during that period.

For this reason, there will probably be less talk of recruiting people with spiky profiles over the next couple of years and some of the mavericks who joined the big corporates will, no doubt, take their payoffs and run.

Off-the-wall-types, spiky profiles, mavericks – call them what you like – can make a lot of people uneasy, especially when the outlook is already uncertain. As one executive in the survey said, “life is actually easier if you get rid of them”.

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4 Responses to Do firms really want spiky people?

  1. Oh my goodness – I loved this. The whole square peg in a round hole thing. And how often the “maverick shows up underperformance or lack of commitment elsewhere. Thanks Rick!

  2. Rick says:

    And showing up that underperformance makes it even more likely that the maverick will be fired.

  3. Karyn Romeis says:

    Over the past three years, I have learned that I am one of those spiky people. I don’t set out to be awkward. I just look at what is needed and get on with it. I then discover that “that’s not the way we do things, here.” Which is fine, except there is seldom anyone who can tell me why we do things the way we do. That’s when I get spiky. If you can’t defend the way things ‘have always been done’ why be so precious about continuing to do them that way? Why not explore some alternatives? If my way works, why can’t we do it that way?

    I do ask a lot of questions… and I say “but” a lot: “but what about…” “but why…” “but maybe…” and so on.

    Somewhere along the line, I seem to have turned into a maverick. I didn’t do it on purpose, honest!

  4. deb acle says:

    Good post.

    And I’ll check the link you give re:

    ‘The NHS is looking for entrepreneurship….’

    Jiminy. When hell freezes over! was my first thought, I have to say.

    The management model the NHS uses is fundamentally flawed in the context of public service provision and they have some very confused thinking as regards ‘customers’ and ‘processes’. They really have their capitalism mixed up with their socialism.

    Only a maverick would dare to point this out to them though! LOL
    Meanwhile the whole shebang’s handcart is on a collision course with a roasty, toasty hell as far as I can see…

    Plus, let’s hear it for mavericks! It’s the ‘unreasonable’ man [sic] that moves things on…the majority just lurve those velvety ruts.

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