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Monday, 24 April 2017

How easily defined is talent?

The BBC’s “Analysis” programme recently aired an episode titled, “Is Talent a Thing?”. In it, they discussed the concept of “talent”, and the characteristics used to pick out a “talented” individual. As a recruitment company, we’re always looking to match organisations with talented people, but are we potentially looking at the wrong skills?

What do Richard Branson, Whoopi Goldberg and Jamie Oliver have in common? All are very successful yes, but all were overlooked at school in terms of predicting future success; they all fell victim to the belief that talent can be found through tests. By overlooking people that don’t fall into the intelligence box, we ignore hugely talented individuals and allow them to fall through the gaps.

Academic performance is no guarantee of future life success. James Flynn argues that, to gauge potential, people should be judged on their efforts to do “cognitively-demanding” tasks and see if they succeed, whilst looking for “non-cognitive factors” that could disrupt things e.g. a marriage breakdown, a bad friendship group. The Flynn Effect says that “ability is dynamic” – it can grow or shrink, and that intelligence isn’t fixed. In other words, over time our abilities shift and we can become more or less capable. On this basis, we need to be more flexible when it comes to assessing talent.

Rather than education, a more important measure is what Angela Duckworth calls “grit” – that is having a passion and long-term goals, coupled with the perseverance to make them a reality. And, the vital thing about perseverance is that it’s about coping with mistakes, setbacks and weaknesses, and learning from them. These things must feed into each next step and future practice – you have to make adjustments and not do the same thing each time.

Duckworth’s concept of “grit”, and the Flynn effect, come together in the theory of the “Growth mindset”, developed by Carol Dweck. Dweck argued that some people have a fixed mindset i.e. that talent or ability is fixed in place – you either have it or don’t. Others have a growth mindset i.e. talents develop as we try new things and are pushed into new challenges.

Rather than looking at exam results, it’s more important to judge how someone copes with setbacks and mistakes. We need to be pushed, to get out of our depth and face something we’ve not done before to really know our capability.

Any definition of talent risks wasting too many people. As Margaret Heffernan argues on the show, talent is a mythical beast – something people believe in, but can’t pin down. It can’t be measured, and in trying to select for it, we fail almost everybody. Talent is much more about displaying a capacity for learning and persistence, than anything else.

This all affects the world of work too and impacts the hiring of new staff. The typical interview process is a bad way of predicting performance – see my previous blog. It’s estimated that around 1 in 6 interview-based appointments are misjudged. A much more effective measure is a work-sample test – something that measures a candidate’s aptitude to the daily tasks of the role. Alternatively, a structured interview process, where candidates are asked to tell stories of times when they’ve been challenged or made mistakes and how they recovered. Google, for example, assesses five characteristics in candidates: humility, conscientiousness – a sense of responsibility not to quit until the job is done, comfort with ambiguity, a sense of fun, and courage. Being able to judge a cultural fit is much more important in terms of long-term performance than technical ability.

So, even if you think you’ve got a good record with hires, read up on the latest practice and review what you do – there’s no harm in performing a systems check and it could even improve your record. 

Written by our Researcher, James Quinlan


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