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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 10/09/2008 | 2 Comments

Over five years ago Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point fame, wrote an interesting piece for The New Yorker, called ‘The Talent Myth – Are smart people overrated?’ Gladwell argues that “‘the talent mind-set’ is the new orthodoxy of American management’”. He recounts how organisations believe they are involved in ‘the  War for Talent’ - pitted against their competitors in a global world where there is just too few great leaders or employees to go round. The success of the organisation, its profitability, is all about finding star performers.

In this article Gladwell argues that the idea that organisations need to vie for the services of extremely talented individuals is one of the reasons why executive salaries and packages have skyrocketed. Gladwell goes on to point out how difficult it is to spot the type of leadership talent organisations want. The skills that leaders need are a subtle blend of skills and experience. He writes: ‘The process of assessing ability in the workplace is a lot messier than it appears.’ One of Gladwell’s conclusions is that the organisation is much more important than any individual. Yes, individuals can be extremely talented, as is evidenced by great novelists or artists, but successful organisations are ones where ‘the system is the star.’

As is often the case, what is fashionable in America eventually becomes flavour of the month here and, as far as I can see, talent management is all the rage. Even from my limited knowledge I can see how destructive this approach can be for organisations.

For a start, the war on talent idea suggests that talent is limited – there is only a small amount of it to go round and this is why organisations have to spend so much time identifying it, attracting it and keeping it. More importantly, introducing talent management schemes can have a negative effect on staff. In the course of a couple of weeks I have had five conversations with people from different organisations where, sotto voce, they have confessed that their talent management approach  is not having a beneficial effect. Why not?

Well, first of all the whole thrust of talent management is to separate the talented from the – yes, inevitably, untalented. Talent management schemes don’t do much for the people who don’t get selected. It creates two tiers of employees. It effectively insults the vast majority of employees for the sake of the talented minority.

Some organisations may think this worthwhile but the folk I’ve spoken to in Scotland say they suspect that it is not actually benefiting the employees who are the apparent beneficiaries of the scheme. The problem is this: I get singled out as having talent and now all sorts of things are expected of me. It pressurises me to perform and it makes any kind of failure or mistake much harder for me. Paradoxically it may actually retard my development.

This might seem farfetched but this is exactly the problem which Professor Carol Dweck identified with young people who were praised for being very intelligent following completion of IQ tests. When they were then asked if they wanted to undertake a harder test they were much more likely to say ‘no’ than the youngsters who had simply been praised for their hard work and effort.

Not that long ago I heard a presentation from the HR director of a big Scottish bank. He described in great detail how they managed talent through various sorting and profiling methods. I just couldn’t see how this could create the type of environment conducive to learning or enhanced performance for the majority of people in the organisation.

This is exactly what some HR people are now saying. One woman told me last week:  “We thought we were doing something positive and aspirational when we introduced a talent management scheme. It  has had the opposite effect. It has created a negative atmosphere.”  

Carol Dweck’s empirical research and theory of mindsets is great for helping us to understand why talent management can be so toxic in organisations. And this is one of the reasons why I’m so delighted she is coming back to Scotland and telling us how she thinks we can grow and nurture everyone’s potential, not just identify the talent of a few.
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Joined: 14/09/2008

Comment Posted: 14/09/2008 16:41
Thanks Carol, very timely and thanks for pointing me towards Carol Dweck's work.

I'm responsible for a 'gifted & talented' programme at a secondary school in the east of England. I agree wholeheartedly that talent isn't restricted to just a few, and should be developed in everyone. This doesn't fit very easily with the English government view who expect us to identify the most talented 10.

Is it as corrosive for me to identify the most excellent in a number of fields, as it would be to identify the most talented?

I'd hope to develop talent in everyone, while also acknowledging students who achieve particularly excellent standards. Should I aim to achieve both goals?

I'd value any thoughts, but appreciate that simple questions rarely have simple answers. Thanks.
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Joined: 27/10/2008

Comment Posted: 28/10/2008 00:22
I think the context of work is different to school. While I would expect a school to have the latitude to highlight all talents - an organisation does have specific needs at certain times. However in the workplace I think it is the application of the concept is fundamentally flawed.

Attributing the construct of 'Talent' to the individual, misses the interaction between job characteristics and the context of the organisation. It is entirely likely that in a reasonably fast moving environment (and most FMCG and retail environments are) what is required for success is going to be fluid over a 3-5 year timeline.

Once the label 'talent' has been assigned for the few (and not assigned for the many), if the construct is focussed solely on the individual - how do you change someone's status? If it does happen it tends to be as a performance issue. Moving away from an individual focus can make the management of talent less destructive and it also allows people to be able to see that their own strengths may be better rewarded and appreciated in a different organisation in a different context. There are many other factors that will come into play on whether someone moves - availability of other jobs being most obvious - but at least they are better informed.

'Every dog has its day' is a simple enough concept - it requires a bit more complexity in application though, and the rewards are in my experience there to be had.
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