Culture fit versus culture add and competent arseholes – should we be attracting more arseholes?

Serendipity is a glorious thing. On today’s train ride from London to Leeds, I was just getting settled in and ready to write about why companies need more competent arseholes, when who sits down next to me but Jeremy Paxman – a very strong candidate for being a competent arsehole!

The phrase ‘competent arseholes’ first came up when I was down at the Innovation Circus in London a few months back with Fiona. Jonathan Campbell from Social Talent whacked up this slide – and the room erupted in mild chuckles.

The talk was all about how the Social Talent team had grown so rapidly, and how finding people who fitted in mattered. And it’s something you hear all the time – hire for fit and train for skill.

But to me the whole idea of ‘competent arseholes’ just a way of avoiding people who don’t fit the perceived office culture. By hunting out the competent nice guys – the people who will fit in – are we missing people who will stand out and really challenge how a business does things?

Culture fit – bad for diversity

Hiring for compatibility is reasonable enough in theory – conventional wisdom is that happy workplaces are productive workplaces – but it falls apart when it collides with the reality of the way humans are wired.

We’re all a web of biases – many of them unconscious. It can apply to gender, race, and class. But there’s also evidence that height, weight, age, appearance and accent can all impact the likelihood of someone getting a job. By hiring people who are the same, companies can create echo chambers where bad ideas can thrive and real world problems are ignored.

This is one of the reasons why Twitter has failed to evolve its platform to deal with hate speech. And it’s probably how Pepsi ended up with one of the worst ads in recent memory (this is a fictional re-enactment, but I can’t imagine it’s too far from the truth).

Culture add - or competent arseholes

There is now a growing recognition that culture fit isn’t a great way to hire, with the move much more towards hiring for culture add. What extra can people bring to your organisation? What wider perspectives can you bring in that will help get you further?

And that’s where competent arseholes come in - as an extension of culture add. People who maybe don’t meet up to fluffier, harder to define elements that make up an office culture and can trigger those unconscious biases - friendly, approachable, welcoming are some buzzwords that spring to mind.

Competent arseholes come across as difficult, awkward, uncompromising or rude. But they’re willing to challenge convention, make people uncomfortable and speak up when others wouldn’t. And that’s where the real value can be added.

So instead of ‘fitting in’, we should focus on finding out and recruiting for the traits that will help people be successful at an organisation – regardless of their background. Shopify are a great example of this, looking for four key ‘predictors of success’:

  • Authentic in interactions
  • Fully engaged
  • Impact driven
  • Self-aware

Jeremy Paxman, LeBron James, Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer. All could probably be identified as competent arseholes – people who are very good at their job but annoy people around them.

Sure, you wouldn’t want to go for a beer with them. And you definitely wouldn’t want an entire business built of competent arseholes. But by having a set of traits that predict success, you can attract and recruit people who’ll challenge your business, and you’ll leave a culture open to changing and evolving as more people join, rather than having one pre-defined norm that people must fill.

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