Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unstable weirdos and business success

Dave Logan over at CBS News explains why so many geniuses don't have jobs. He has a broad definition of the word "genius": anyone who is brilliant at something or other that the business world might find useful. The problem is that people who are really good at one thing are usually very bad at others. Like most management consultants, Logan likes to quantify things, even if it is just a wild ass guess; so he lays out a 10-point scale: 1 being very bad and 10 being great. Implicit in his argument is that companies would rather hire someone who was 5 across the board than some brilliant person who also had personality issues.

Logan also subdivides the geniuses into three categories: (1) obnoxious extroverts; (2) invisible introverts; and (3) unstable weirdos. But like most people in the business self-help world, he has no real insights into these people. His big idea is to train them to act more appropriately in a business setting. That might work with the obnoxious extroverts, but it won't work for the others. The only way to work with a brilliant introvert is to create a safe environment were he can gain confidence. Introverts are more than willing to put forward their ideas if they get the chance. My experience of it is that in most businesses it is only the loud who get listened to. So if an employer wants to hire brilliant introverts, they need to change their work environment, not the introverts.

For the unstable weirdos, it is even worse. Logan writes of them:
On their good days, they seem like ideal executives—able to take lots of views into account, plot the best course forward, and exude so much energy, the lights are brighter when they're in the room. On their bad days, they are moody, unresponsive, slow, and pessimistic. They may have bipolar disorder, or something else.

Exactly! Yet he thinks that somehow they can be fixed with a little chat about office decorum? Bipolar people aren't pretending. They really do think they can conquer the world some days and can hardly manage to get out of bed others. It's brain chemistry. And it's awful.

Being, by all accounts, a type (3) and to a lesser extent a type (2) genius, I know what kind of work environments these kinds of people need. And that is the problem. The business community does not like these kinds of people because they disrupt regular order in the work place. And it isn't just their oddities. Their "positive" attributes are also upsetting under most circumstances. Logan mentions Steve Jobs. Regardless what you think of him (I think he is the most overrated executive ever), he wasn't part of a team—he always led the team. Thus he created the environment that he needed to flourish.

Even in the high tech world, people are treated as parts of a machine. That is why they have job titles like "computer programmer." If one employee leaves, another can be hired and plugged into the same position. I've had the experience of being too valuable to an employer, and they hated it. And understandably so! If I had left suddenly, they would have been screwed. But on an even more fundamental level, they just didn't trust me because I was not really part of their tribe. I didn't fit in and fitting in is what most work is about. Most companies just trudge along. They don't innovate. People need coat hangers, not new fangled devices for hanging clothes. And so finally, what is an odd genius in the workplace other than a dangerous disruption?

When a company needs a genius, it contracts with one.


The idea that businessmen are entrepreneurs is ridiculous. Most successful business are nothing more than well managed operations. Innovation is only acceptable if it is incremental. Businesses do not do revolution. Think of Apple: most people's idea of a highly innovative company. They've come up with almost nothing new. They are good at packaging other people's ideas. But even there, the "look and feel" of their devices has evolved gradually. Like most big high tech companies, when they want a new technology, they just buy some little company where geniuses are still welcome.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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