Talent and Performance

The “Strengths” theme in recent years has become very popular in thinking about work performance.  According to the proponents of this model, all one has to do is identify one’s strengths and then find work that uses them.  The result is a win-win for the individual and for the employer.

It is an appealing  notion, but the real story is quite a bit more complex.

The concept is that people are born with natural strengths (or talents), that these are embedded in the neural networks of their brain so deeply that they are like information superhighways, thus allowing massive high-quality decisions to cruise along at blinding speeds making an individual execute “near flawless performance” with little effort since the activity is “natural.”

Proponents of the theory like to contrast this type of performance with those activities where one does NOT have a natural talent, and where, it is explained, the neural networks are not so well-constructed such that the amount and quality of information flowing down the neural net is much like a jalopy chugging down a rutted country road.

What is RIGHT about this model:

1. People do seem to have natural talents or strengths for certain activities, and when they are engaged in those things, they are able to execute them to a high-degree with little effort (provided they have practiced them relentlessly—just ask the adult pianist that was a child prodigy how much they practice in order to perform so beautifully!!!)

2.  Placing people in positions where they can “play to their strengths” is a sure way to make an organization perform well.  It is cheaper and more reliable than having to train people to do things that they simply are not able to do readily.

What is WRONG with the model:

1.  Not everyone is equally talented.  That is, for the same identified talent-attribute (like, say, “analysis”, the ability to analyze information), people may have widely varying degrees of talent.  For one individual this may be their greatest “strength,” and yet they still are not able to do it as well as someone else whose talents are so abundant that it is sixth on their list of talents.

2.  Other individual capabilities may interact with the “talent” and enhance or limit its utility.  For instance:

  • the individual who becomes an analyst due to that talent may find that their performance is sub-par because they are not able to filter through mountains of data to find that which is relevant, and thus they suffer “analysis paralysis.”
  • Or, they must interact with other people to get data, yet they have mediocre people skills, and thus they have a hard time getting the data they need.
  • Or, their intelligence is only slightly above average, and so while they can compile the dataset effectively and present first-order concrete causalities from the data to the conclusions, they are not able to make penetrating and insightful analysis (looking beyond the conclusions into second- or third-order downstream consequences).
  • Or, they have poor work habits, so they are not able to stay focused to get work done in an efficient and timely manner.
  • And so on.

3.  Identified talent or strength does not equate to skill.  Just because someone has an identified talent doesn’t mean that they have the ability or the practiced skill necessary to do a job competently, nuch less flawlessly.  A personality test may indicate probable “talents,” but that does not mean these talents are effective in the real world.  (In this sense, these talents are probably best referred to as “aptitudes.”  With training and practice, these aptitudes could result in superb performance…the question for the individual is whether it is worth it to invest the time and resources to develop the aptitude into a real strength.)

4.  Opportunity to apply talent may not be available.  Organizations (and the marketplace for labor) may not have many available positions to place people such that they can apply their talents and strengths.  That is because the world pays for what they need and want, not what someone wants to do.  The world needs a loaf of bread (or wants a BlackBerry) and will pay for it;  the individual who is talented at playing the flute better learn how to bake bread or service Blackberry customers.

5. Leadership is critical.  The capability of the individual’s managerial leader to set goals, provide resources and coaching which is motivational, build and maintain a aspirational and high-performing team around the individual, and to engender the belief on the part of the performer that their efforts are valued, essential, and urgent has a HUGE impact on performance.

6.  Situational variables can grossly affect performance.  Having cynical cube-mates has a surprisingly negative affect on individual performance compared to upbeat and optimistic cube-mates.  Likewise, organizational culture and politics or “noise” may support or hinder an individuals application of their talent.

In conclusion, those peddling a “strengths” perspective do have a valuable model to apply.  Just be sure that other points are included when you are planning for high-performance.

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