How Popular Narratives Hide Talent and How to Uncover It

How Popular Narratives Hide Talent and How to Uncover It

Pete Turner
January 22, 2018

In any work force the accurate deployment of talent means the difference between wastage and productivity. Closing the gap between talent-potential and leveraged-talent means fewer resources achieving greater productivity.

However, talent is often driven down the rabbit hole by insistent narratives that dominate our conversations.

Here are two crucial insights as to why so much talent is wasted and how it can be uncovered and leveraged.

1. Human talent is not infinitely malleable

At the start of the 20th century, the prevailing opinion was that people have completely fixed and unchangeable traits of temperament, personality and potential. In terms of the nature versus nurture argument, the nature argument was winning.

As the 20th century continued the nature argument became less popular, and by the end of the 20 th century the prevailing opinion had swung well past an accurate center ground and almost entirely to the nurture end of the continuum.

The swing was kicked off by new research, political unpopularity of human beings not been born equal, and a massive amplification of the pop psychology movement that had a very seductive USP: anyone can become anything. Regardless of its veracity, this popular opinion was, and still is, heavily defended.

Some publications even go as far as to call innate talent a myth and put all of human potential down to experience.

Oversimplified interpretations were often made from complex findings in neuroscience. These interpretations promoted ideas like unbounded neuroplasticity, the ability to rewire our brains and unlimited individual potential. With this came the idea that any success could be achieved through the application of just hard work, having the right attitude, a growth mindset, even more hard work and the will to never give up. Of course, all are praiseworthy attributes.

However, the purely nurture based perspectives of human potential (or the environmentalist perspective) encourages us to assume we are all born the same, with equal dispositions, aptitudes and potential in different areas. Every time you hear that a trainee can be ‘molded’ it is a tell-tale sign of an overzealous belief in the nurture argument.

But people are less moldable than popular opinion may have us think.

Understanding that human talent is not entirely malleable is crucial to us uncovering, leveraging and maximizing individual and group talents.

The reality is that many talent aptitudes have a relatively stable quality to them, and are largely (although not entirely) heritable. Working really hard in areas of moderate to low natural aptitude may be a commendable pursuit, but it is not profitable, and is likely to lead to faster burn out and make people feel like failures.

We each have different natural tendencies and different levels of potential for subtly different ways of thinking and behaving. Regardless of how unpopular that may sound, accepting and understanding this fact can save massive wastage and help point professional development, resources and people into useful directions. Directions for where they have the most potential for growth and success.

Working really hard in areas of moderate natural aptitude is noble and commendable, but not productive.

2. Talent is complex and often hidden – so get the right tools

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” – Ken Robinson

Accountants and financiers would never dream of using their gut feelings and best guesses to arrange their books and pay the bills. Imagine the catastrophes if engineers made estimations and used their intuition when deciding on the specs for a new bridge or skyscraper. Yet still, gut feeling, human ratings and intuition often prevail when it comes to recruiting, developing and
promoting talent.

Riddled with unconscious bias, human beings are famously unreliable raters of other humans. 360 ratings are an even larger mass of unreliable human data. And when asked to rate themselves, people rarely have an accurate and honest awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Additionally, in a weakness-fixing world that teaches people they can be anything as long as they have the right attitude, people become motivated to work even harder to hide their deficiencies.

When they become fluent at saying what they think others want to hear, they might even start believing their own deception.

Getting reliable data through the effective use of good psychometrics supports the accurate alignment and development of talent.

Psychometric data can be for recruiters what a calculator is for a book keeper. Talent aptitudes are also more varied than many of us realize. Research from positive psychology has identified over 30 distinct, relatively stable talent aptitudes that people have in unique orders of dominance. These create distinctive combinations of talent, so it’s no wonder that people struggle with the “tell me about your strengths and weaknesses” question.

Helping people identify, develop and leverage their unique combination of talents with the assistance of psychometric tools and professional coaching is an effective way to close the gap between talent potential and leveraged talent.

Understanding that individuals are not infinitely malleable is the first step to accepting weaknesses, developing partnerships where others can dovetail their talents, and having a healthy relationship with hard work and failure.

The first step to realizing the unlimited potential of an organization is accepting the limited potential of the imperfect, uniquely talented people within the organization.

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