There is currently one concept in organisational language that concerns me more than any other… It’s almost impossible to screw up a nine-box competency framework and throw it at the waste paper bin in an HR department without bouncing off a conversation about ‘the talent agenda’ or a person with ‘talent’ in their job description.
My understanding is that the word ‘talent’ is typically used for the individuals considered as talented; those who shine more brightly than the rest; the most likely leaders of tomorrow, so they are a handy bunch of people to identify and nurture, but I’m not sure that ‘talent’ is a helpful label.
The meaning associated with talent is often one of ‘god-given ability’. They are just better. It’s easier for them. It’s in their DNA. The dictionary installed on my computer defines talent as ‘natural aptitude or skill’.
I’m lucky to have several friends who are elite performers in their fields – Olympic athletes, fighter pilots and entrepreneurs. Every one of them, if asked, will dismiss the idea of talent. They will all tell you of competitors who seemed to have more natural talent but squandered it. They universally attribute their success to mindset and bloody hard work.
So – here are 6 reasons why the consequence of the concept of ‘talent’ may not be helpful:
1. ‘Talent’ is a myth
Malcolm Gladwell, in his insightful book ‘Outliers’, suggests that extraordinary performance is a result of 10,000 hours of road-time. Matthew Sayd, in his excellent book, ‘bounce’ suggests that the difference is hours and hours of purposeful practice.
2. Even of it wasn’t a myth – HR systems are the least effective at identifying it.
Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time learning about performance management systems in large organisations. For the most part they reward conformity and consistency over genius and insight. A large organisation I worked with recently recognized their lack of entrepreneurial flair, so they recruited twenty real, proven, successful entrepreneurs; shakers and movers who can make things happen. None of the twenty highly paid recruits lasted a whole year. Once inside the organization they would have needed to behave in line with the culture to stay – which completely defeats the object.
3. Talent creates confirmation bias
Check out ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ or ‘The Rosenthal Effect’ for compelling evidence of how deeply our judgement is corrupted by identifying individuals as high potential – great news for those who make the cut and severely limiting for those who don’t.
4. Talent creates identity prison.
Once identified as talent you have an identity-based label that may corrupt your behaviour in several ways. You may avoid any activity within which you will not shine, so step out of activities that do not reinforce the label (like successful sports people who duck competitions if they think they will not finish on top, or successful entrepreneurs who become paralysed by protecting their success and lose their entrepreneurial ability) or they may being to ‘rest on laurels’ and apply themselves less if they are not adequately challenged.
5. Talent provokes developmental laziness
One of my friends is a schoolteacher. Within the first month of the term he identifies the top 20% of kids in the class so that he can help them to achieve excellent test results, and the bottom 20% of kids so that he can make sure they keep up and ‘get them over the line’ at the end of the year. The middle 60% are essentially ignored and left to their own devices. He’s gaming-it to meet the governmental measures upon which he is performance managed, recognized and rewarded.
6. ‘Talent’ can become a ‘club’
I was recently working with an L&D professional who explained that their organization had spent that past 5 years asking, “What do we need to do for our talent?” “What do our talent need from us?” They have recently started asking, “Hang on a minute, what are these talented individuals doing for us? What do we get back from this investment? What are they signing up for?”
I’m probably a lone voice here (again). It would be great if you could click through to the blog and leave a comment.
In the meantime, here are a couple of ‘What if’ questions to chew over:
What if we did away with the word ‘talent’ – replaced with ‘current high-performers’? Make it less permanent – more changeable – more linked to performance than god-given abilities.
What if development activities were strictly related to what needed to be achieved in the current role (to get better at it and achieve a commercial objective) and the future role (to grow into it) and made available to everyone?
Although available to everyone, what if individuals had to self-nominate and justify or earn their involvement each development activity – so that development activities are seen as a valuable privilege not a passive ‘joy ride’?
Just a thought…