New Research Into Hiring Habits of Middle Managers Reveals “Dumb” Preferences

It’s a popular sentiment that great leaders should (and do) hire people who are smarter than they are. That admonition has been espoused, in myriad forms, by the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Ben Bradlee, and the list goes on. And while there are certainly leaders who do hire people smarter than themselves, in the real world, that advice is far more aspirational than operational.

It’s not hard to imagine a leader who, having burned the candle at both ends to score the promotion into their management role, might balk at hiring someone whose stellar performance will shine a light on the manager’s deficiencies. That’s an utterly human response, and managers are, at heart, pretty typical humans.  

It’s difficult, of course, to ask managers directly if they avoid hiring smart people because of their own insecurities. Who among us would answer that question honestly? But notwithstanding the difficulty of the direct approach, there’s still plenty of evidence that suggests managers regularly avoid hiring people who might challenge, contradict, or outshine them.

First, a leader who truly desires someone smarter will be open to using new ideas; otherwise, what’s the point of hiring really smart people? 

But in a recent Leadership IQ survey of more than 21,000 employees, only 29% said their leader is always open to using ideas/practices from outside the company to improve performance. And only 27% say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. 

Humans are generally more open to new ideas in theory than they are in practice. So it’s no great surprise that most employees don’t feel like their manager is quick to embrace suggestions, innovations, new ideas, etc.

Second, in a study on goal-setting, nearly two-thirds of executives said that they pursue goals that others describe as audacious. It’s probably not unexpected that executives are far more apt to pursue audacious goals than the 37% of frontline employees who do so. But here’s an interesting twist: Only 33% of managers pursue audacious goals. 

In other words, managers are less likely to pursue big audacious goals than their employees.

Given this data, it makes sense that it’s usually CEOs who advocate hiring people smarter than themselves. They’re more open to big audacious goals, and hiring the smartest people comports nicely with that mindset. But someone far more cautious, like a middle manager, is unlikely to feel quite as warmly toward audacious goals and the smart people who generate them.

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Third, a recent study on the kinds of personality traits that managers prefer in their employees reveals that managers are far more apt to like employees who follow the rules and pursue realistic goals than they are to value employees who challenge convention and are nonconformists. The smartest people, while obviously beneficial, can also be a handful. A manager who wants a calm, smoothly operating department may not appreciate an employee who challenges convention, even if it’s in service of tremendous improvement.  

Finally, an issue that we haven’t yet broached is the extent to which managers employ a more directive leadership style. As an example, let’s look at one of the questions from Leadership IQ’s test on leadership styles. Respondents are asked to choose one of the following options:

  • I generally let my employees complete tasks the way they want to.
  • I like my employees to complete their tasks the way I prefer them to do it.

Clearly, the second choice is representative of someone with a leaning toward directiveness, someone who retains the final decision-making authority, tells employees exactly how they would like tasks and projects to be performed, and clearly communicates to employees the consequences of unsatisfactory work. 

Now, that’s not inherently bad; plenty of legendary and successful leaders were highly directive. But, a highly directive leader will be less likely to say, “Here’s my new hire who’s smarter than me; I’ll take their lead on this project.”

Hiring people smarter than ourselves is a lovely concept, and it’s a pithy phrase to use in social media posts. But the reality is far more nuanced, and it’s an issue worth exploring deeply before uncritically accepting it as an objective.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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