You're not as talented as you think you are

LONG READ: How can organisations get the best out of their people? Start by realising that most of us are nowhere near as good as we think we are.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2017
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McKinsey first introduced the notion of a war for talent, the idea that since people are the critical asset of organisations, organisations' success depends on attracting, motivating and retaining top employees, in 1997. Twenty years on, the war for talent is still in full swing, and arguably the only two conflicts that are discussed more frequently are the war on drugs and the war on terror. Like those two, the only rational or data-driven conclusion one may reach about the war for talent is that we are losing it: the war for talent has become the war on talent.

Some of the major problems we face are due to a misunderstanding of what talent actually is, and a general tendency to overrate our ability to manage it - a talent delusion. Unsurprisingly, there is generally also a mismatch between employees' views of their own talent and how talented their organisations think they are. In fact, even when it is narrowly defined, such as in the case of intellectual ability, there is only a weak relationship between people's perceived and actual talent. Why would we expect people to make the right career choices if they don't know what their skills are? How can leaders nurture and develop talent if they are unable to spot it, let alone understand it, in the first place?

These incongruent talent perceptions cause problems for both parties: for employees, it leads to unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement; for organisations, it leads to promoting and hiring the wrong people at the expense of overlooked, better alternatives. As a result, the discrepancy between talent and success is wider than it should be. In a rational world, talent and success would overlap substantially. In the real world, however, individual success has less to do with talent because too many people advance their careers without helping their organisation to advance.

Unfortunately, the talent management industry is full of charlatans. For every academic or scientifically credible author there appear to be hundreds of self-proclaimed experts, gurus and thought-leaders. The problem is not only that their advice is counterproductive, but that it also seems intuitively right to most potential clients and the general public. In response, academics react as they do in other fields of expertise: by making their science more complex, abstract and incomprehensible to the average practitioner.

To overcome the conceptual chaos and intellectual confusion that characterises the field, it is essential to take a step back and attempt to understand the most fundamental question about talent - what is it?

There are four critical questions we can ask to determine whether individuals possess talent or not. Are they part of the 'vital few' who contribute a disproportionate amount to the organisation (and would they be an equally vital part of a competitor's workforce)? If not, would they be part of that group if they performed their best (they may still be considered talented if the only missing piece is motivation)? Would they perform better in a different role or context that would better fit their personality (few people are talented in every area, and talent is always the product of the fit between a person's disposition and the requirements of the task)? Finally, are these individuals aware of how talented they are, or do they overor underestimate their talents (since talent also involves the ability to judge one's own ability, we may expect people's talents to increase if their self-awareness increases)?

To illustrate how these four principles may be used to evaluate someone's talent, consider the case of Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the best football player of modern times, if not all time. Although Messi's teammates - Neymar, Iniesta, Suarez - are some of the best footballers in the world, he is consistently the key contributor to Barcelona's goals, assists and results, and single-handedly accounts for around 50% of these critical stats, leading many experts to describe the Barcelona of the past few years - perhaps the best team of all time - as 'Messidependent'.

Lionel Messi is talented - in the right context. Image credit: Chris Johnson/Flickr

His maximum performance is unrivalled, and given how consistently he displays his best there is hardly any difference between his maximum and typical performances. Yet, Messi's accomplishments with Argentina, his national team, pale in comparison. While Messi has won an astonishing 25 titles with Barcelona, he has failed to win a single professional trophy with Argentina, which has led him to resign from the national team (to focus on his Barcelona career). Clearly, Messi's style, personality and skills are a much better fit with Barcelona than Argentina, which is why his performance and talents are so clearly manifested with the former but not the latter team.

Like Barcelona Football Club, whose scouts enrolled Messi in their youth academy at the age of 13 when he was clearly very green, most organisations hope to spot talent before their competitors do. But it is important to remember that early manifestations of talent are still undeveloped potential, even in the most brilliant of individuals. Although it is often assumed that talented people are good at things without being taught, their full potential must still be developed, even when they display a clear predisposition for greatness in their field and their talents are expressed early on. Thus coaching, training and other enriching environmental experiences are important catalysts of talent.

Indeed, coachability is a key ingredient of talent. Some people are more likely to seek and benefit from development than others. They are more likely to pay attention to their mistakes and learn from them; they are more receptive to negative feedback; they are less likely to blame others for their own wrongdoings. Above all, they are not overconfident or complacent, but are eager to keep growing and developing. This is why in talent, as in many other domains, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Yet people won't grow unless you help them. The main reason is that they have a natural tendency to lack self-awareness. So, unless you help them, they will probably be unaware of what and how they need to change. Coaching interventions vary widely, but to produce effective change they always provide accurate feedback on the coachee's performance and potential, which increases their self-awareness. It is possible to enhance a person's self-awareness without causing any subsequent change; but it is not possible to create positive changes unless the person first becomes self-aware.

You are less talented than you think

The main obstacle impeding self-awareness is the so-called self-enhancement or illusory superiority bias. That is, we are generally less talented than we think.

Most people are average but think they are outliers. The mere thought of being average is generally more insulting to them than the idea of being special, even in a bad way. They would rather be abnormal than average, mostly because of the narcissistic benefits of feeling unique. This is particularly true in Western, individualistic societies, but the reality is that most places in the world have already been infested by American individualism (consumerism). Kim Kardashian is as big in China as she is in America, and it won't take long for the next icon of trash culture to emerge from China and be exported to America.

This is why people are so keen on the notion that everybody is talented in their own way, an idea that represents the essence of the strengths approach to talent. Needless to say, this idea contradicts any credible data. It is akin to the idea that everybody deserves a gold medal, and is little more than pseudo-intellectual populism. Since robust data suggest that a few individuals make a disproportionately high contribution to their job and organisation, that when different individuals do their best - because they are motivated - their performance still differs quite widely, and that some people achieve more by trying less and some people achieve less by trying more, it is irrational to deny that some people are more talented than others.

And yet, several psychological studies show that most people consider themselves better than average in virtually every domain of competence. For example, most people think that their memory and health are better than average, and that their romantic relationships are better than average. Most managers think that they are better leaders and businesspeople than average, and most athletes think they are better than their peers. In some domains of talent, the better-than-average bias is rather extreme. As many as 90% of drivers think they are better than average. Around 90% of high school students rate their social skills as better than average, and virtually all university professors think their teaching skills are better than average.

In our own research, we have highlighted the pervasive inaccuracy of self-estimates of ability, particularly when it comes to talent and intelligence. Our studies differ from the better-than average studies in that they also include an objective measure of people's ability, thus enabling us to quantify how accurate self-estimates actually are. The methodology is simple but robust. First, participants complete a scientifically valid test of talent (eg, creativity, mathematics or verbal intelligence); next, they are shown a normal distribution of scores, including the average and standard deviation for the population; then, they are asked to estimate their own score vis-a-vis the norm. For instance, if the task is to work out what their verbal IQ is, they are told that the average is 100 points, and that 66% of the population scores between 85 and 115.

Oscar Wilde was talented too:  'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'  Image credit; Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Given the detailed instructions, and the fact that individuals have just completed a test about the abilities they are asked to estimate, one would expect a high correlation between a person's self-estimate and their actual test score. However, the typical correlation between these two variables is around 0.20, which indicates that there is a mere 4% overlap between how smart people are and how smart they think they are. Thus if you imagine a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap between self-perceived and actual talent, the two circles would barely touch. Meta-analyses indicate that self-perceived job performance correlates very weakly with supervisors' ratings of job performance, mostly because employees' rate their own performance too positively, particularly when they perform poorly. This is especially true in Western cultures, where people are less self-critical and less modest about their skills and achievements, and where bragging is often rewarded. Even when people are told about the better-than-average bias, most individuals believe that this bias does not apply to them, something psychologists have labelled blind-spot bias - the belief that you are not as biased as others.

If you think that this ubiquitous optimism is a healthy habit, think again. It may be an accidental benefit of being overconfident that others can be fooled into agreeing with you about how talented you are, but while this fake competence can help individuals in the short term, it comes at the long-term detriment of the group or collective. Overconfident employees underestimate threats and danger, and are less likely to develop self-awareness and accept negative feedback. Overconfident leaders are less likely to respond positively to coaching and development interventions. And people in general will find it harder to accept the success of their peers when they are themselves deluded about their own talent and contribution to the organisation. It is for this reason that the relationship between pay and pay satisfaction is notoriously weak. Even in the presence of clear performance criteria, most people think that they deserve to earn more than their peers, not least because they perceive their own talents and motivation to be greater.

Yet, a great deal of modern talent management practice fosters and reinforces people's unrealistic self-estimates of ability. For example, several large corporations, such as Wayfair Inc. and the Boston Consulting Group, are thinking of eliminating negative feedback from their performance evaluations, so that employees would receive either positive feedback or no feedback at all. Likewise, in much of the HR world (particularly in the US), the term 'weaknesses' has become so politically incorrect that it has been replaced with 'opportunities'.

This feel-good approach to talent management is not only killing the little self-awareness most employees have, it also suggests that every employee matters as much as every other. Assuming that every employee has potential, and therefore deserves to be developed, reduces the return on investment from talent management interventions, not least because organisational performance will increase much more when the performance of the key players improves than when the weakest players do better. Moreover, what people need is honest feedback on their potential, rather than confirmation of their talent delusion. When employees are made aware of their limitations, they have a chance to close the gap between their actual and ideal selves, and improve. When they are told that they are more talented than they actually are, they risk making overly ambitious decisions and trying to punch above their weight.

Happiness is overrated

Conversations about talent also often end up shifting from productivity and career success to personal wellbeing and happiness. The main premise underlying this is that organisations and managers should focus on making their employees happy, and that employees should prioritise happiness over any other career goals. However, the idea that organisations are ultimately interested in making their employees happy is hardly realistic. What employers care about, even in the case of non-profit organisations, is productivity, performance and organisational effectiveness. It is only because employee engagement enhances these variables that they are interested in boosting it; not for the sake of making people happy. Moreover, people's happiness is often disconnected with objective indicators of wellbeing or achievement - there's a reason why the academic term for happiness is subjective wellbeing.

Really, we don't need any Chief Happiness Officers. Unlike engagement, happiness does not translate into higher levels of performance or productivity. In fact, nothing of value would ever be created unless people were somewhat unhappy and therefore motivated to change the status quo. Civilisation, with all of its artistic, social and scientific masterpieces, is the product of dissatisfied people who medicated their unhappiness with extraordinary accomplishments. Conversely, happy individuals are generally too content and complacent to create: a certain degree of dissatisfaction and unhappiness may actually be a bigger catalyst of productivity than happiness is.

There has been a very favourable evolution in the nature of work since the rise of humanist and positive psychology in the late 1960s. HR, which had already moved from Fordism and FW Taylor's dehumanising system of scientific management to the bureaucratic procurement entity of the 1950s, began to focus on employee wellbeing. This created a significant shift in how people regard work. We are now living in the aftermath of this era, the age of the spiritual workaholic.

Throughout the industrialised world, most people are no longer content with jobs - they want careers. We now have the gamification of work. Employees want consumer-like experiences and HR has been co-opted by PR and marketing departments to promote organisational cultures as a sort of Club Med. The most attractive places to work boast sushi chefs, table tennis, laundry service and unlimited vacations as some of their perks, and on top of that they promise employees meteoric career progressions and the ability to 'change the world'. But to think that every worker in the world can potentially be engaged, or assume that there are enough fulfilling jobs in the world for everyone, is absurd.

It is, alas, only the top 1% who can legitimately aspire to such interesting and hedonistic vocational adventures, while the rest must cope with unexciting and mundane jobs. This reality is in stark contrast with popular claims that everybody can find meaning at work, and that career crafting is a realistic option for most. Furthermore, in developed economies a substantial proportion of the workforce has been led to believe that they deserve to be happy at work - if their jobs can't make them happy, they ought to switch or quit, for they are being deprived of a universal right.

This nonsensical view of work as a vehicle for self-actualisation or spiritual fulfilment is creating a great deal of pressure on the average employee to find the perfect job. It has raised career aspirations beyond what is feasibly achievable, and may arguably backfire: although challenging goals motivate, unrealistic goals are defeating. There is no point in aspiring to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs if the chances of success are less than.0000000001% and, on top of that, such aspirations lead you to reject available - and objectively better - job opportunities.

Moreover, as hundreds of social psychological studies have shown, it is not possible to force people to be happy, and trying to be happy often generates the opposite result. Like engagement, happiness may or may not emerge as the product of work, but it is the nature of your work that will drive or diminish happiness. Happiness is a collateral symptom. Clearly, it is possible to do great work and be unhappy; and it is equally possible to be happy without doing any great work.

The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted: 'I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.' In light of the common optimism that characterises 99% of the current writings on employee engagement and wellbeing, Wittgenstein's observation seems almost heretical. Yet two important points underlie this seemingly cynical and pessimistic remark about the meaning of life. First, there is no objective indication that in the past 100 years human beings have experienced any significant increases in job or life satisfaction. And if you think there are any subjective indicators for this, they are probably just manifestations of deluded wishful thinking.

The French movie La Haine provides a powerful metaphor to illustrate this phenomenon. It is the story of a man who is falling from a 50-storey tower block but keeps repeating to himself 'Jusqu' ici tout va bien' (So far so good). It is not the fall, but the landing, that hurts. A more poetic depiction of this phenomenon can be found in Oscar Wilde's masterful quote about optimism: 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'

The age of talent

All organisations have problems, and they nearly always concern people. How to manage them; whom to hire, fire or promote; and how to motivate, develop and retain them. Psychology, the science of understanding people, should be a pivotal tool for solving these problems, yet most organisations play it by ear. As a result, billions are wasted on futile interventions to attract and retain the right people in key roles, and most people remain disenchanted with their careers. The effects are felt by everyone. Employees want better jobs and better leaders; leaders want better employees; organisations and entire economies underachieve.

Despite the importance of talent management in the real world of business, there is unfortunately a huge scientific-practitioner gap in talent management. HR practitioners are generally lukewarm about academic research on their subject and, worse, they emulate other professionals and laypeople, in thinking that their intuition and experience are enough to make insightful and accurate observations about people.

This is one of the main problems with psychology: although most people are interested in it, they also believe they are experts in it. Compared to other scientific fields of knowledge, such as quantum physics or organic chemistry, psychology feels rather intuitive. After all, it is about people and most of us spend a great deal of time interacting with people - therefore, we must all be experts. However, there is a science to understanding and predicting human behaviour, and intuitive judgements about psychology are as subjective, and wrong, as intuitive judgements about quantum physics and organic chemistry.

Perhaps more problematically, the wider appeal of talent as a topic of public interest, and a key theme in self-management and career development conversations, has added a great deal of noise to the literature in this field. Indeed, the leadership development and talent management industries have largely been corrupted by wishy-washy advice from self-proclaimed experts and unqualified gurus. Thinking around talent has been hijacked by the self-help movement, and the result is a proliferation of populist and toxic advice, ungrounded in science yet highly effective at misleading HR practitioners and decision-makers in their talent-related activities.

As a result, and as indicated by the pervasive disengagement levels among employees, the ubiquity of passive job-seeking, the appeal of self-employment and the rise of 'entrepreneurship porn', almost 20 years after the concept of the war for talent was first introduced we have made no visible progress on winning this war. To make matters worse, a substantial amount of money and resources have been devoted to it and, much as in the wars on drugs or terror, without results.

Still, not all is lost. If we can use what we know about talent while ignoring ill-founded advice, we shall see light at the end of the tunnel. And while the application of evidence-based principles will help, it is perhaps even more important to abolish counterproductive practices.

Thus, realising that the seemingly intuitive and commonsensical approaches that have always been in place may, in fact, be wrong and destructive is the single most important thing HR practitioners can do to improve. As Mark Twain wrote, 'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.'

(c) Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic 2017, extracted from The Talent Delusion published by Piatkus at £12.99

Main image credit: Nazario Graziano/agencyrush.com

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