Talented Terrors, "Bless Their Hearts," And Other Job Candidates You Should Avoid Like The Plague

Technical proficiency, once a guarantee of lifetime employment, has become commoditized in today’s job market. What employers now want, and what truly differentiates high and low performers, is attitude.  But finding the "right" attitude isn’t just about figuring out whom you should hire, it also requires identifying the people you shouldn’t consider hiring. 

When Leadership IQ recently tracked 20,000 new hires over a three-year period, we found that 46 percent failed in one way or another, 35 percent became middle performers, and only 19 percent went on to become legitimate high performers. If you round the numbers a bit, this means that out of every 10 new hires, about 5 will fail, 3 will do okay, and 2 will be great. Imagine if you could eliminate the 5 who fail and keep the other ratios the same. So for every 10 people you hire, 6 will do okay and 4 will be great.

In other words, if the only change you made was to avoid hiring the people who are likely to fail, you’d have twice as many high performers. Imagine the monumental successes you’d be racking up with twice as many high performers. You’d have fewer headaches without those failed hires walking around your organization. People with the wrong attitude are tough to manage; they consume tremendous amounts of management time and distract you from more value-adding activities. They also irritate and chase away a lot of high performers and contribute to a host of negative occurrences.

So while you do want to focus on attracting and hiring more high performers, you also need to focus on not hiring the people whose attitudes make them a poor fit for your culture.  The following are the two basic categories of people that you shouldn’t hire:

 

  • People whose attitudes just don’t fit your culture
  • People who have problem attitudes 

 

Now, there’s nothing inherently problematic with the first category: the people whose attitudes just don’t fit your culture. They’re good people; they’re just not good for you. In the dating world we’d say, "It’s not you, it’s me." For example, someone who’s a great fit at Southwest Airlines might not be the perfect fit at The Four Seasons Hotels. Both companies are fantastic, but they serve very different customers in very different ways. Google and Apple are both cranking out great products, but they sure do it differently. A star at one company might be an uncomfortable fit somewhere else. The lesson here is that there are no universal high performers, only the high performers who are right for your organization. 

However, the other category of folks that you shouldn’t hire—the ones who have issues when it comes to attitude—is a totally different story. Many organizations acknowledge only high, middle, and low performers. High performers are viewed as being desirable to hire while low performers are the people those organizations do not want to hire. High, middle, and low performers certainly exist, but there are actually a few different types of low performers, and some are harder to discern in an interview than others. 

Think of performance as having two dimensions: skills and attitude. (You can undoubtedly come up with others, but Leadership IQ’s numerous studies show that almost all attributes of low performance ultimately get subsumed by skills or attitude.) The general rule of thumb is people who are incompetent and unpleasant can usually be safely classified as low performers. (They have lousy skills and bad attitudes.) These folks are pretty easily identified in the interview process and are not a giant problem for hiring managers. 

But hiring isn’t always that cut and dry. Some people have great attitudes but terrible skills. Others have stellar skills but bad attitudes. These examples illustrate two very different categories of performance, but both can be considered low performers. You don’t want to make the mistake of hiring either of them. 

Bless Their Hearts

We call the people who have great attitudes but lousy skills the "Bless Their Hearts." To translate for anyone who hasn’t spent much time in the Deep South, "bless your heart" is a Southern phrase that basically means, "Thanks for trying, but what you just did was totally clueless. And you’re lucky my code of Southern gentility prohibits me from saying anything more, because I might just slip and say something really mean." While I currently live in the South, I grew up in the North where we instead used the phrase "God love ‘em," when what we really meant was "I’m sure they meant well, but boy, that was dumb." (The expression of choice for my buddies in New York is "that poor bastard.") 

Regardless of the phrase, if you’re using it to describe someone in your organization or someone you’re interviewing, it’s time to rethink that person’s performance potential. Someone with a great attitude (trying hard and genuinely wanting to please) who repeatedly fails to get the job done right (doesn’t have the skills) isn’t an "almost" high performer. God love ‘em, but that person is a low performer, and no amount of amazing attitude is going to make up for it. And no low performer should be admitted to the elite club that is your organization. 

Talented Terrors

The other category of low performer is the exact opposite of the Bless Their Hearts. These folks have great skills but lousy attitudes. We call them "Talented Terrors." When they’re at their worst, these people are like emotional vampires. And while they won’t actually suck your blood, the frustration of dealing with them will suck the life out of you. 

Talented Terrors are by far the most difficult kind of low performer to detect in interviews. By definition, they’re highly skilled, so lots of hiring managers get lulled into complacency during the interview because "nobody this skilled could possibly be a poor fit, right?" Talented Terrors are also very smart. They are masters at turning on and off some of their more troubling attitudinal problems. Think about the Talented Terrors you already employ. No matter how bad they’re acting on a given day, if your Chairman of the Board walks by their desk, they will be full of sunshine and buttercups. "Hello Sir, wonderful day we’re having! You’re looking more fit than ever. Have you lost weight? I just finished reading your letter to the shareholders, and it was brilliant as always, Sir!" Of course, as soon as the Chairman leaves, the sunshine gets replaced by dark and threatening clouds and the Talented Terrors returns to biting everyone else’s heads off. 

Another thing that makes Talented Terrors so difficult to detect is that they usually aren’t all bad. That is, they’re not without some good qualities. (If they had zero redeeming qualities, they’d be quite easy to detect and dismiss.) In the real world, things are seldom totally black and white, and Talented Terrors are no different. They’re (usually) not monsters; they’re people who have traits that seem just fine mixed with a few traits and characteristics that will drive you so nuts that you may regret becoming a manager. 

The key to defining the attitudes that will allow you to reveal if someone is a Bless Their Heart or a Talented Terror is Differential Characteristics; the attitudes that truly separate your high performers from your middle performers, and your low performers from everybody else. Or as we call them at Leadership IQ, your "Brown Shorts," a reference to a hiring tactic once used by Southwest Airlines.  During a group interview of pilots, they asked the candidates if they wanted to change from wearing their dress-suit pants and don Southwest’s shorts. Southwest knows that people who aren’t "fun" just won’t survive (and they’ll make life miserable for everyone else around them), so it was easy to dismiss the ones who declined the more relaxed attire as potential low performers for their culture.

Just like Southwest, you can use your own unique organizational attitudes to create your own Brown Shorts. You don’t want a giant list of every possible attitudinal characteristic under the sun; you just want the important ones that for your organization are the critical predictors of employee success or failure. Because when you ask your candidates to "wear" your organization’s Brown Shorts, you’re going to learn a lot about attitude from how they respond to that request. If someone is happy to wear your Brown Shorts, it shows they have potential to be a high performer in your organization. But perhaps even more importantly, your Brown Shorts quickly reveal the people you shouldn’t consider hiring.

To learn more about hiring for attitude and finding your Brown Shorts and applying them to your hiring process, read Mark Murphy’s new book: Hiring for Attitude (McGraw-Hill, December 2011).   

[Image: Flickr user sfllaw]

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • Nari Soundarrajan

    Actually I agree with several tips you note as well as the article itself, I just find it disingenous when people don't take personal responsibility of delivering critique and instead chose to foist it on "God" or use convoluted analogies from subcultures, when simple frank speaking would enable the other party to improve faster.

  • gtinsay@gmail.com

    This article started off good and it was almost really great! Although enjoyable to read, I think the two descriptors missed the mark. They're not good representations of the 46% percent of people I have encountered who were probably "failures." I think it can be better described as a matrix of motivation and ability. 1) High ability low motivation (sort of like the "talented terrors"), 2) High ability, high motivation (supposed "stars"), 3) Low ability, low motivation, and 4) High motivation, low ability (I think "bless your hearts/god loves 'ems" are kind of split between these last two)

  • Paul Tallbush

    So high performers are defined merely by the top 19%? A and B students? Pretty dim, that.

    And conformity to a criteria that is presented as non-performance related indicates high-performance? Again, as likely only to identify compliant toadies as anything.

    And to conclude, the "Brown shorts" aphorism is best applied to the ship captain who previously, when faced with danger from pirates, exclaimed "Bring me my red shirt." because it hid the blood that he so readily shed in defense of his ship, now, in the face of overwhelming odds, exclaims "Bring me my brown shorts."

    You had to see that coming.

  • Louann Oravec

    I am so excited to start my new job on Monday. I had a phone soliciting job I hated, and did not want to go back when my transportation issue cleared up. I have been praying for a job where I have a chance to use my talents I have acquired through the years. My boss will even be picking me up for work in the morning. When God delivers a job you have been praying for He really goes out big. So for those who are still looking Keep on praying and trusting God will come through.

  • atimoshenko

    If 50% of all people fail, the problem is not with the people, but with the organisation.

    But beyond that your point is well made – individual skills are far from the only relevant dimension for hires. Indeed, individual attitudes (and how those fit in with the highest values of the organisation) may also be somewhat limiting. After all, people almost always have to work with other people, and for *any* given person there are certain types of people he or she works brilliantly with (and, so succeeds), and other types of people with whom he or she does not (and so fails). Skills and attitudes must match to specifics (i.e. functions within a team – which captures more than just job description, and team personality). Even the right person in the wrong place will be wrong – like Albert Einstein being made to pilot a fighter plane.