Recruiting’s Dirty Secret: Managers Don’t Want to Hire Innovators

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Aug 31, 2022
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Plenty of companies say they want to hire innovative and creative people, but is that really true? Sure, innovation sounds fantastic, but true innovators tend to challenge conventional wisdom, pursue the truth even in the face of fierce opposition, and their doggedness can sometimes frustrate their bosses and colleagues.

In the new study, “Managers Don’t Love Innovators,” Leadership IQ asked managers to identify the characteristics most associated with innovators. At the top of that list were traits like taking risks, challenging conventions, pursuing audacious goals. Then those same managers were asked to rate the characteristics of their favorite employees. At the top of that list were qualities like dependable, team players, and easy to get along with — essentially, the characteristics that managers considered to be the least typical of innovative employees. 

Put simply, managers’ favorite employees have the characteristics of the least innovative employees.

Now think about a legendary innovator like James P. Allison. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for pioneering a revolutionary cancer treatment that frees the immune system to attack tumors. In a recent conversation, Dr. Allison told me:

“From very early on, even immunologists, certainly cancer biologists, had scorn for immunotherapy, manipulating the immune system as a way to actually treat cancer. The words I heard were snake oil, things like that.”

His research showed that his approach could cure almost any kind of tumor in mice because they were treating the immune system, not the tumor. But for some, the scientific proof wasn’t enough. “For three-and-a-half years,” Allison shared, “I looked around, just kept going to company after company after company, showing the data. And, a few times, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but it’ll never work in humans.’ And to that, I’d say, ‘You’re a scientist, right? How come you’re so closed-minded?'”

After years of relentless door-knocking, Dr. Allison did find a biotech partner to turn his antibody for mice into a safe drug for humans. Even with the partner, however, it would still take years of preternatural doggedness and, in his words, “being a nuisance.” His need to see this cure brought to the world drove him past where most others gave up. He remarked, “Even people that knew me just kind of gave up. They weren’t caught up in it like I was.”

In Dr. Allison’s case, there is a happy ending, with the countless lives saved by his cancer treatments, the Nobel Prize, and the newly launched James P. Allison Institute at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he and his team explore the full potential of immunotherapy for treating cancer.

Why am I sharing this story? If you are looking to hire truly innovative people, you might encounter someone with characteristics like Dr. Allison. He’s utterly brilliant, of course, but he’s also persistent. He isn’t the type of person you can tell to back off of an idea because it’s too disruptive; if the idea is correct and beneficial, this type of person will pursue it relentlessly.

Meanwhile, only 15% of companies have defined the attitudes that make their high performers so special. And only 20% of companies have thoroughly defined the attitudes that separate their organizational culture from that of other companies. 

There are far too many employers that say they want to hire innovative types without really defining what that means in the real world. Are your best employees truly innovative? Or are they a little creative while still being highly agreeable (a trait that managers love in their people)?

This doesn’t just apply to innovation. Whichever characteristics you want new hires to possess must be thoroughly defined. The meaning of words matters, and when it comes to hiring, your attitudes, characteristics, and culture have to be thoroughly defined if you want to hire successfully.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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