How Hiring Freethinkers Encourages Diversity of Thought

February 14, 2017 at 9:00 AM by William Clarke

FreeThinkersHeader.pngThis is the ninth in a series of ten posts on hiring candidates with characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a single key candidate trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate for it.

So far, we’ve covered the science of first impressions, hiring for personality versus character, how to hire committed candidates, how to find motivated candidates, how to hire collaborative individuals, how to hire passionate candidates, finding candidates with the right skillset for your role, and the value of growth minded candidates.

The nature of work often boils down to how we solve problems. Whether you’re a startup, a manufacturer, a retailer, a bank, or a consultancy, you’re helping your customers solve some kind of problem.

One of the greatest dangers modern organizations face is groupthink. Groupthink is the tendency for people’s ideas to conform to one another, no matter how irrational or dysfunction the outcomes might be. Since Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing with specialization and the division of labor, organizations have standardized and institutionalized best practices and efficiencies to maximize production. In the world of manufacturing, this makes perfect sense.

In the knowledge economy, where the creation of value is in critical thinking, strategy and correct decision making, groupthink becomes more problematic. In some cases, it can even lead to disaster by creating a culture cognitive sameness that stifles both dissent and innovation.

Finding freethinkers can be challenging since the nature of many hiring processes promotes the idea of fitting in. Human biases towards people who have certain things in common with us only exacerbate the problem. But the benefit of hiring freethinkers is worth recalibrating your hiring process.  

The Danger of Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when people value conformity and harmony over accuracy or truth. It can have disastrous consequences at organizations, especially when bad, incomplete, or false information leads to decisions made under false pretenses.

The antidote to groupthink is a culture of critical thinking that encourages dissenting opinion and values evidence-based decision making. One of the most important factors in not only resisting groupthink but also promoting innovation is cognitive diversity. People who have different backgrounds, references points and perspectives are a natural bulwark against groupthink because they think about things differently than their coworkers which leads to better, smarter solutions.

Roles focused on outcomes, not processes

Processes are crucial in many respects, but they can keep people from thinking creatively, because instead they are thinking of staying within their lanes. If your job descriptions are overly processed-oriented you could be disincentivizing some people from applying right off the bat. Freethinkers, or original thinkers, as Adam Grant calls them, often focus on goals first and then figure out the best way to achieve them, but if they’re getting the idea that they’ll be hamstrung by oppressive processes and bureaucracy, they’re gonna pass you up. Instead, hone in on what they’ll be accomplishing at your organization as part of team. At the end of the day, the opportunity to uniquely contribute and learn as part of a team is what hooks them.

Align your roles with the talent

Establishing the concept of ownership is key to bringing in freethinkers. During the screening process, rather than falling back on standard questions, ask them about their work creating new strategies, charting new directions and solving problems with novel solutions. Freethinkers take calculated-risks are comfortable with change and can usually think on the fly, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be that way no matter what. If your culture is unfriendly to them, freethinkers could be self-selecting themselves out of your hiring process without you realizing it.

Designing roles for freethinkers means loosening structures that inhibit creative, innovative thinking. That means shifting ownership away from managers to individual contributors, and reflecting that change in your job descriptions, recruiting outreach, interviews, and every other candidate touchpoint.

Watch your branding

Your employer brand has a major impact on the efficacy of your outreach. To attract both passive and active freethinkers, consider the signals you’re sending. Everything from the tone and content of your emails and job listings to your social media content should emphasize the growth opportunities available at your organization. Using words and phrases like “upward growth”, “outside the box” or  “creativity” sends a message to talent that you’re looking for someone to shake things up and bring their own creative spin to a position, something that will appeal to freethinkers as they get to know you.

Hire from off the beaten path

Sourcing people from all of the same places who have the same backgrounds is a one way trip to conformity, which leads to groupthink. To avoid this, look for people from less traditional schools or who have less traditional backgrounds. Instead of considering the pedigree of their background, consider the hurdles they had to overcome to achieve what they achieved. A software engineer who attended community college for two years before transferring to a four year school while working part-time has achieved a lot that doesn’t necessarily show up on a resume or in a social media profile. You’d be amazed how much less traditional candidates can bring to the table.


Fresh ideas and creative thinking are rocket fuel for organizations. A recruiter’s job is to replenish an organization’s human capital with new smart people to reignite the fire of progress and forward momentum anew. Study after study shows that the more intellectually diverse a group is, the stronger the outcomes it reaches are. Continuously finding and bringing freethinkers into your organization will not only lead to great hires, it will lead to a great organization.

Other posts in the Evaluating the Traits of High-Performing Employees series (so far):

  1. What The Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting

  2. The Dangers of Hiring Candidates Based on Personality

  3. Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining Talent For The Long Term

  4. How to Identify and Assess Motivation in High-Performing Candidates

  5. How Hiring Talent Breeds a Creative, Scaleable Organization

  6. Why Passion is the Keystone to Success

  7. How to Tell if a Candidate's Skills Fit Your Role

  8. The Advantage of Hiring Growth-Minded Talent

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