What is talent?
We easily take this question for granted – “you know it when you see it” right?
Nowadays this question is often revisited in organisations, and it requires a common understanding in order to have a productive and bias-free conversation.
In his book: The Talent Delusion, Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic reviews four common perspectives to help you answer the question: “What is talent?”, namely:
- The rule of the vital few
- The maximum performance rule
- The effortless performance rule
- Talent = fit
1. The rule of the vital few
This rule suggests that you can gauge talent by looking at your top performers.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that performance is not normally distributed but rather follows a power distribution (Aguinis & O’Boyle, 2014). This means that the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 effect holds true, in that in most organisations, roughly 20% of the employees account for 80% of the performance and vice versa.
Organisations that consider only a minority of their employees as talented, will likely spend significantly more resources on their high performers – the rationale being that you get more ‘bang for your buck’ if you spend on those with the greatest performance. Losing top performers might have the added disadvantages of also greatly strengthening the competition and/or paying exorbitant consultant fees to retain their services.
2. The maximum performance rule
Another perspective is that you can gauge talent when you compare employees’ performance against each other and who are trying their best at a given task.
During an interview or an assessment centre (where participants are asked to perform specific job tasks) employees will typically give their best effort, allowing you to discern who is best at doing that particular job by comparing their relative performance. The varying degrees of difficulty and complexity of these activities might help to discriminate between the talent “haves and have nots”.
But what happens when they get the job? Will they continue to perform at their best? This question highlights the difference between maximal and typical performance. Maximal performance relates to talent exerted at its greatest level and which is typically observed in selection situations like interviews and assessment centres, whilst typical performance relates to one’s everyday outputs once you have been employed. The more motivated the employee, the smaller the difference between their typical and maximal performance.
3. The effortless performance rule
Another way to judge the presence of talent is by considering the relative effort an employee must put into a task to perform.
For example, even if I train just as hard as Usain Bolt, he will still beat me at the 100m dash – he is clearly more talented than me at running. Imagine Usain and another Olympian consistently ending the 100m dash in a tie, the athlete that expended the least effort can be considered to be more talented.
4. Talent = fit
This perspective on talent states that employees will display talent when they find themselves in a context that aligns with their values, preferences, and abilities.
This fundamental principle in psychology underlies the reason why we suggest you go for career counselling before committing to subject choices (Nye, Su, Rounds, & Drasgow, 2012). We know that our natural talents may be the reason for, or get in the way of, our success depending on the context. In employee selection, it is critical to first understand the context (i.e. the requirements of the job, and the culture of the team/organisation) in order to select individuals that will “fit”.
This perspective on talent also allows for a more egalitarian view compared to the rule of the vital few. It broadens the conversation from performance to include potential.
Performance vs. potential
An important aspect to consider is the difference between performance and potential. Generally past behaviour can be a good predictor of future behaviour, and subsequently past performance can be a good predictor of future performance – with one important caveat: nothing else changes! It is a cliché to say that good salespeople don’t necessarily make good sales managers, but it’s true (Drucker & Maciariello, 2008).
The reason why is because we equate performance with potential, but they are not the same thing. We easily confuse performance for potential and promote the wrong people. We also easily miss those with high potential because they are not performing as well as others in a less important role. This dynamic is also often responsible for why organisations do not spend enough time developing their leaders through the different levels of the leadership pipeline. The assumption being: they were fine in the past, they will be fine in the future. This often results in the famous Peter Principle playing out.
Another critical aspect that is often overlooked is how performance is measured in the first place, but this is a topic for a future article.
What about other views of talent?
There are many different views of what talent is. These four however are useful in that they allow us to approach talent management scientifically, i.e. through objective observation and measurement. This in turn means that we can experiment, learn from our mistakes, and improve in the process. In many organisations hiring, firing, and promoting is an extremely political endeavour. However, for strategic talent management to be an effective driver of organisational performance these fundamental questions should have common definitions. Competence should result in the ascendance of star performers in organisations, not the leverage of power.
- Aguinis, H., & O’Boyle, E. (2014). Star performers in twenty-first century organizations. Personnel Psychology, 67(2), 313–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12054
- Cascio, W., & Boudreau, J. (2011). Investing in people. Financial impact of human resource initiatives (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education.
- Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017). The talent delusion: Why data, not intuition, is the key to unlocking human potential. London, UK: Piatkus
- Charan, R., Drotter, S., & Noel, J. (2001). The leadership pipeline: How to build the leadership-powered company. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Drucker, P. F., & Maciariello, J. A. (2008). Management (Revised ed). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
- Nye, C. D., Su, R., Rounds, J., & Drasgow, F. (2012). Vocational interests and performance: A quantitative summary of over 60 years of research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(4), 384–403. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612449021