Talented Terrors And 'Bless Their Hearts'
Lots of organizations acknowledge only three categories of performance: high, middle and low. Hiring managers in these organizations are tasked with hiring desirable high performers and avoiding undesirable low performers. Now, high, middle and low performers certainly exist, but low performers come in several different types, and some are a lot harder to discern in an interview than others because they tend to do a really good job faking high-performer qualities.
It’s dangerous to chunk low performers into an amorphous group. If you don’t want to hire low performers you must learn to identify the nuances that define all types of low performer.
Let’s start by thinking about performance as having two dimensions: Skills and Attitude. You can undoubtedly come up with others, but our 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’ve got lousy skills and bad attitudes.) Identifying these folks during the interview process is fairly easy and doesn’t pose a giant problem for hiring managers. But hiring isn’t always that cut and dry. We’ve also got people who have great attitudes but terrible skills. And then there are those who have stellar skills but bad attitudes. These reflect two very different categories of low performance, and you don’t want to make the mistake of hiring either of them.
“Bless Their Hearts”
We call the people with 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. ” [Note: While I currently live in the South, I grew up in the North where we instead use the phrase "God love 'em, " when what we really mean is: "I'm sure they meant well, but boy that was dumb. "]
Regardless of the phrase you use, if you’re utilizing it to describe someone in your organization or someone you’re interviewing, it’s time to rethink that person’s performance potential. Because someone with a great attitude (who is really trying and who genuinely wants to please), but who repeatedly fails to get the job done right (just can’t hack 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 that. And no low performer should be admitted to the elite club that is your organization. You can root for that person every step of the way (and who doesn’t want to see a plucky underdog succeed?), but that doesn’t change the low performing facts.
The other category of low performer sits opposite of the “Bless Their Hearts.” These folks have great skills but lousy attitudes and we call them “Talented Terrors.” These people are “emotional vampires.” They won’t actually suck your blood, but 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 and they can prove it. This lulls hiring managers into complacency during the interview because “nobody this skilled could possibly be a poor fit, right?” Talented Terrors also present as smart, and the place where they are smartest is temporarily turning off their troubling attitudinal problems and fooling you into hiring them.
Think about the Talented Terrors you already employ. No matter how bad they act on a given day, when the Chairman of the Board walks by their desk it’s all 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 turns to dark and threatening clouds and the Talented Terror returns to sucking the life out of you with their bad attitude.
One more thing that makes Talented Terrors so difficult to detect is that they usually aren’t all bad. These low performers do possess some good qualities (if they had zero redeeming qualities, they’d be quite easy to detect and dismiss). But make no mistake; Talented Terrors will make you so nuts that you may end up regretting your decision to become a manager.
Fixating on hiring high performers and dismissing low performers by dumping them into one broad category won’t protect your organization from bringing on undesirable low performers. Learn the nuances that define the different categories of low performer and know how to interview and hire for both skill and attitude.