Amy Poehler explains why it’s a bad idea to hire a “genius”

Amy Poehler sees right through bullies.
Amy Poehler sees right through bullies.
Image: AP/Invision/Richard Shotwell
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Amy Poehler prides herself on bringing talented people together—whether that involves directing some of her best friends and fellow comedians in the new Netflix film Wine Country or elevating the voices of younger women as the executive producer of critically adored TV series like Broad City and Russian Doll. Key to her success may be one hard and fast hiring rule: Talented jerks need not apply.

“The most talented people I’ve worked with are the easiest to work with,” Poehler said at the Indeed Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, this week. “There’s the occasional genius who can’t figure out how to collaborate, but they’re rare.”

The trope of the difficult genius can be found across every field, from technology (Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos) to philosophy (Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek) to the arts (director David O. Russell famously throws tantrums on set, while male members of the cast of the TV show Arrested Development sought to excuse actor Jeffrey Tambor’s bullying behavior by suggesting it was part of his creative process). The association between antisocial behavior and superior intelligence gives unearned credit to the jerk geniuses—“Ooh,” we think, “that powerful person just threw a dry-erase-board marker at his underling, he must be so smart!” And it may also lead us to underestimate the talents of people who are consistently kind.

Poehler makes a clear case for reevaluating those assumptions. For one thing, she says, “there’s very few geniuses”—so the chances that the guy who just yelled at the receptionist over his lunch order is also a truly unparalleled creative revolutionary whose talents are unquestionably above the rest are relatively slim.

What’s more, she suggests, a lot of bad workplace behavior comes from a place of fear or insecurity. Most truly talented people, by contrast, are confident about their ability to do their work well in a variety of circumstances. That means that they know there’s no need to be selfish or push others around in order to make something worthwhile.

“I don’t think you need chaos to create something interesting,” says Poehler. “I don’t think you need a difficult person as proof of talent.”

To be clear, Poehler isn’t looking to hire doormats. She says she actively seeks to work with people who know how to push back. “I like self-care—people who know what their worth is and what they can do or can’t do well, and won’t let themselves be pushed in ways that are not appropriate for them,” she says. Being firm about your personal boundaries is good. Ignoring other people’s boundaries is a problem.

Poehler’s refusal to hire difficult people is also a reflection of her investment in the well-being of everyone in the workplace. That’s a smart concern, since research shows that a single toxic person can have a wide-ranging impact on worker morale and productivity. (Netflix instated a “no brilliant jerks” rule for the same reason.) “When you’re building a set, for example, you’re all gonna be in this situation together,” Poehler says. “I will absolutely choose someone that is collaborative, responsive, responsible, and highly recommended over someone that’s a genius, every time.”