Opinion: the key to success in recruiting people with diverse ways of thinking about their work is not to overdo it
Boris Johnson's chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, has put out a call for "weirdos and misfits" for jobs at No. 10 Downing Street. His blog noted that "we want to hire an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work in Downing Street…", citing the need for data scientists, policy experts, project managers and, most notably, "weirdos and misfits with odd skills".
Along with cogent arguments for the need for scientists, economists and software specialists with special skills, Cummings calls for the hire of "super talented weirdos" as he terms them. "We need some true wild cards", he continues, "artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand 'diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB".
From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Eoghan Tomás McDermott from The Communications Clinic discusses if Dominic Cummings' blog post is the best way of finding the staff you really want
You might argue that this call for hiring weirdos is just an extension of everyday life at No. 10, which often seems like a cross between a clown car and a dumpster fire. However, Cummings taps into a widely held belief that adding very different people to teams can make them more creative and effective. The business press is awash with articles that argue that "Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse"
Are they right? I am an organisational psychologist, and a rule of thumb that has rarely steered me wrong is to assume that anything that is universally accepted in the popular business press is probably wrong, or at least strongly overstated.
There is a great deal of research on the idea of cognitive diversity in teams and it presents a very mixed bag. First, there is a grain of truth to the claim. If everyone in an organisation thinks about problems in precisely the same way, this can lead to the organisation settling into a rut. At the worst, it can contribute to "groupthink", where members of an organisation feel pressure to conform and withhold doubts. Some historians believe that groupthink led the US and UK into several wars, including a nuclear war near-miss during the Bay of Pigs Cuban crisis in the 1960s.
From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, strategic management consultant Julie O'Neill and social psychologist and brand strategist Karen Hand talk about the pitfalls of groupthink
On the other hand, it is clear that bringing people who think differently into decision-making groups can lead to suspicion and conflict. Many of the people we would label as "weirdos" deal with a variety of social and psychological challenges, ranging from attention deficit disorders to autism spectrum disorders. There are settings where people dealing with these challenges can be quite effective; many noteworthy scientists show signs of these challenges. However, government is often the worst place for people who are socially challenged, especially if their positions require consensus and persuasion.
There has been a stunning change in the way we think about cognitive diversity. For many years, attention deficit disorder and the like were thought of as drawbacks that substantially diminish opportunities for success in the workplace. But current research and advocacy in the field of neurodiversity is starting to lead to the opposite conclusion, that these conditions can give people genuine advantages in the workplace.
Like many forms of advocacy, this argument sometimes takes things a bit too far. Some people who show social and psychological challenges can thrive in some work environments, but this often requires a combination of wise and compassionate leadership and carefully structured work environments. I doubt that even their admirers would describe Boris Johnson and his cronies as "wise and compassionate" or as providing a carefully structured work environment.
As in most other things in life, the key to success in recruiting people with diverse ways of thinking about their work is not to overdo it. Companies rarely thrive if they are staffed from top to bottom with "yes men" but recruiting people who will always say no and will rarely do it in an effective way is not the secret to success. I applaud Cummings’ recognition that his government might need economists, data scientists and the like with special skills and with new points of view, but I would encourage him to take down the "weirdos wanted" sign.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ