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Why Recruiting Misfits Can Lead to Out-of-the-Box Innovations: Q&A with Cris Wildermuth

Cornerstone Editors

Last week we spoke with Cris Wildermuth, assistant professor of leadership development at Drake University and community chair of LinkedIn’s Linked:HR group, about why companies shouldn't — and can't — teach company culture. Since employees play a big part in shaping the corporate environment, should companies hire people that fit into their current culture, or should they recruit outside of the box? Here, Wildermuth shares why companies should hire candidates that might not fit-in, since people with dissenting opinions often bring about the greatest innovations.

What advice would you give companies that usually don’t hire people with dissenting views?

I would say, "You’re not going to be alive if you continue this route." Ronald Heifetz, a professor at Harvard, talks about adaptive leadership, which is mobilizing people to thrive in a situation of change. When you’re confronted with a situation that requires changes in values, culture or history in order to survive, you’re not going to confront that challenge by having people who are strong supporters of the status quo. You have to have some seeds of dissent in there for that wall of the old culture to be shaken a little.

Apple, for instance, used to be the cream of the crop in its industry, and now you have all those competitors trying to attack the iPad and iPhone by coming up with alternatives. Is Apple going to survive by continuing what they’re doing or by making changes? These are the kinds of conversations that need to be held inside, and if you never accept any words of dissent, you’re in trouble.

If I could conjure up a culture with a magic wand, the one characteristic it would have is openness and no fear — the kind of culture that would let people express their disapproval without negative repercussions. From the standpoint of a well-oiled machine, there’s a lot of productivity in an environment without dissent. That will work wonderfully, of course, until there’s a disruption.

What are the dangers of having an open culture?

The danger of an open culture and allowing dissent is that you may temporarily lose efficiency. Let’s say, for instance, that we work as firefighters. There’s a big fire in the building and you’re an expert firefighter. At that point, you don’t want dissent because, while we’re discussing our disagreement, we’re going to die. There’s a danger in too much dissent in moments of acute crisis, and, often times, a crisis is an adaptive challenge.

What stands in the way of companies hiring people with contrarian ideas and views?

Often times those who object to things — who bring new ideas, who bring the elephant in the room onto the table — those people are not rewarded for their new ideas. If we’re not willing to protect the voice of dissent, then, from an ethical standpoint, we shouldn’t be hiring them. It’s not just about hiring people who don’t "fit our culture." It’s about having hard conversations about what are we are going to do with the people who disagree with us. If we’re not going to support them, then we shouldn’t bring them in because we’re setting them up for failure. The problem is, if we don’t hire the people who disagree with us, we’re probably setting ourselves up for failure.

Photo credit: Can Stock

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