What should leaders prioritise in recruitment: trust, or competence?

In the interests of friendly familiarity, leaders may be tempted to hire people they trust over more competent candidates. But this may not always make for a smooth path

Amid the pressure of running a dynamic, ambitious organisation, one of the greatest comforts that a leader could have is the confidence to be able to say, “Someone has my back.” Often, the types of people that a leader wants by their side in a senior management team are those they have become accustomed to and grown to like – to the extent that those individuals are no longer merely professional associates, but bona-fide friends. And these will be the people in whom a leader will be happiest to invest their trust.

A leader cultivates friends across an entire career, throughout numerous organisations. Those who are most likely to be remembered are the people among whom the leader feels most excited, inspired – or possibly even challenged, if the leader happens to relish the more positive end of the conflict spectrum. Alternatively, these friends may represent a collective comfort zone, from which the leader can expect reliable, safe feedback and the bare minimum of friction.

Whatever the case, a leader’s most trusted friends will fall into one preferential bracket or another – and being preferred is always a handy shortcut to securing someone’s trust.

That trust dynamic can have an enormous influence on a leader’s hiring habits.

“Getting the old gang back together”

For 99% of the time, a leader who is going to a new organisation is required to sign a ‘restrictive covenant’, or ‘post-termination restriction’, in which they will agree with the firm they’re about to leave that they won’t recruit from its staff pool once they have moved on. That type of recruitment, commonly known as ‘poaching’, is generally viewed with distaste in business circles, as it encourages dishonesty and unfair competition. Indeed, in some industries, it can even incur regulatory sanctions, as this Financial Conduct Authority statement from early 2014 demonstrates.

Covenants and restrictions – and other measures, such as strict, internal advertising of vacancies – can place limits upon a leader’s ability to “get the old gang back together”. But there are still workarounds: the leader may be able to hire friends they trust from two companies ago, or perhaps encourage a more recent, trusted colleague to go freelance and then scoop them up once they are ‘out in the wild’, so to speak. However. While I fully acknowledge the tremendous importance of trust, I would urge leaders to take great care before they lurch wholeheartedly down this particular road. Because there are some potentially destabilising dangers in betting the entire house on trust, and taking focus off another crucial value: competence.

For example, one such danger may be that you recruit a trusted friend into a new role, and that person’s hitherto impeccable performance drops off because they are unable to get to grips with that position amid a wave of additional newness – eg, a new organisation, with a new culture and a whole new set of targets. Therefore, whether or not they have your back becomes completely irrelevant, because they’re not hitting the mark and are actually making you look bad. To your other senior colleagues, it may even feel as though you have misled them with claims that the person you’ve hired would be a genuine asset.

Taking a gamble on whether that person you trust is actually capable of doing the job that you have in mind for them – a job that, in and of itself, may be untried – is a significant risk.

Also, you need to examine that scenario from the perspective of the person you’ve hired. Expectations go horribly sour overnight if shared dreams somehow don’t work out. If you recruit a trusted friend into your new organisation and the plan hits the buffers, then that could be very hurtful for both of you. You wanted that person to come in so they’d have your back. That person answered your call because they wanted to have your back. There are some rather moving emotions behind those objectives. But if your hire’s approach to the actual job runs aground, then it is not just you who has been exposed – you have inadvertently exposed your trusted friend to a whole storm of criticism, embarrassment and perhaps even hostility from the other people around you.

There would definitely be a “That wasn’t in the script” feeling of deflation in the wake of a scenario like this. But even worse, that overarching aim of harnessing trust would have completely backfired, sowing distrust in its place.

Ever-decreasing inner circles

I myself can completely understand why a leader would be tempted to prize trust above all other factors… and yet, I can also grasp the drawbacks inherent in that line of thinking. I can draw upon examples from my own career to illustrate each side of the coin:

Once, I was headhunted into a leadership role, and everybody I was managing had applied for the same position. In that environment, it would certainly have been handy for me to have someone alongside me who was a friendly face and who’d have my back – because for all the time I was there, I just had a sense that people were waiting for me to fall. There was so much bitterness over the fact that the company had decided to bring in an external figure that no matter how good I was, I would never have been accepted. There was a great deal of pressure as a result. So, based on how I felt while I was in that role, and how it made me wish for an ally, I can see why a leader would be motivated to hire on trust.

On the other hand: in another example, I once restructured a department at a client company and created two associate manager vacancies. A very good manager who I worked with – and trusted – applied for one of the roles… but I didn’t offer it to him. The person I decided to offer it to did not have my back. In fact, much like the previous example, I think that she was waiting for me to come a cropper so that she could assume my responsibilities. But I hired her because I thought that what she had in terms of competence and experience would fit with how we had structured the new-look team. Strangely enough, a few years later, the guy who I didn’t offer the job to ended up getting another job that was quite similar to that role – and he told me that my decision to reject him on that occasion was the best thing that had happened to him, because it made him really step up and work harder.

So, we can see from these examples that trust is not always to be… trusted. There will definitely be biases at the heart of a leader’s decision to recruit primarily on trust – particularly confirmation bias – but those inclinations will not always bear fruit.

For the grimmest insight into where trust goes wrong, we need only refer to cronyism – and for a major example of that, look no further than the Trump administration. We’re just about a year into his Presidency, and many of the allies he initially brought into his inner circle have fallen away – gradually proving themselves less and less worthy of the confidence and trust that he, and others, invested in them.

Trust is a wonderful value – but it must always work in conjunction with a broad, and holistic, set of other qualities.

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