Common Misconceptions and Truths About Talent

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Misconception No. 1: Employees are interchangeable parts to be moved into

whatever slots most need to be filled. It is truly amazing that so many

managers seem to hold such a belief in this day and age, but judging

by the way so many managers move employees around like stick

figures, they obviously still do. As a corollary to this belief, many

managers also believe that anyone can do certain jobs, especially

lower-level ones, so they end up just hiring warm bodies, many of

whom are not well matched to the work and end up as turnover


Truth: People are ‘‘hard-wired’’ to perform certain activities better

than others and to prefer using a handful of these talents more than


These preferred natural gifts and talents are sometimes referred to as

‘‘motivated abilities,’’ meaning that people are naturally self-motivated

to use them and will make every effort to use them in their

jobs, even if their jobs do not appear to require them. If a job does

not allow employees to use their motivated abilities, they will find a

way to use them in their leisure time because it is intrinsically satisfying

to exercise these select few talents.

Misconception No. 2: Skills and knowledge are more important than talents.

It is easy to understand why so many managers believe this. It all

begins with the hiring process when someone sits down to make a

list of job requirements and writes down the basic requirements for

eligible candidates. At the top of that list are the minimum skills,

knowledge, certifications, degrees, or training needed to perform the

job. Because these requirements are so often the primary focus for

screening candidates out and in, many managers frequently lose sight

of the natural abilities that will ultimately determine excellence in

the job.

Truth: While job-content skills and knowledge are important as basic

job requirements, they are much less important for long-term success

on the job compared to natural talent. Most taxi drivers, for example,

can learn the streets and how to get from here to there, but the most

successful taxi drivers have vital native abilities: friendliness, being a

good listener, the ability to sense when customers want to talk, a

good sense of direction, observation skills, tact and diplomacy, eyehand-

foot coordination, to name a few.

Hiring managers frequently fail to make the distinction between eligibility

to do the job based on trainable skills and suitability to do the

job based on personality factors and natural talent. The problem is

that natural talents are so much more difficult to identify than trainable

skills, causing many managers to make very little effort to do so;

many more simply do not know how. The result is the hiring of

trained applicants who lack the native talents to achieve true competence,

and the screening out of or failure to consider many trainable

external applicants or internal candidates who do possess the right

talents for success.

Misconception _ 3: With the right training and coaching and the proper

attitude, people can learn to do well in almost any job. This myth is related

to that great American idea that ‘‘you can do anything if you just set

your mind to it.’’ Many managers confront their employees with this

very challenge, urging competent employees to take on ‘‘stretch’’

assignments outside the range of their natural talents, and even promoting

them into management positions when what they truly enjoy

is doing the work, not delegating it.

Truth: Yes, people are extremely adaptable, and can be ‘‘bent, folded,

and mutilated’’ to perform many roles adequately. But, unless they

are in the roles that match their motivated abilities (natural talents),

they will not excel or enjoy the work. Instead, they will become

disengaged, possibly burning themselves out, or search for ways to

change the role, or leave the job altogether.

What’s really going on here, in many cases, is that managers are far

more interested in their own needs to fill a slot than they are in the

best use of employees’ talents. They may say they are trying to develop

their people by challenging them, and they may even convince

themselves they are doing the right thing, and feel very self-satisfied

and well intentioned, but the fact is, they are misusing and disrespecting

their most precious asset.

Employees also buy into in this process by not being sufficiently

aware of their own best talents, or confident enough in them, to turn

down an inappropriate assignment, or proactively seek a better fit

when the job has gone stale.

The bottom-line assumption in all three of these misconceptions about

talent is that the needs of the organization supersede the needs of the individual,

and that it is the individual who must adapt. Of course, individuals

have always adapted, especially during economic hard times, and they always

will adapt when job security and survival are at stake. And organizations

are certainly limited in their ability to accommodate every employee’s


But when times get better and companies are competing for talent,

people will have other choices outside the organization, and they will pursue

them. At that point, organizations start waking up to the fact that perhaps

a way can be found to meet the employee’s needs and the needs of

the organization, and both parties are better served for having made the

effort. That can be a turning point in their becoming true employers of