Talent management is based on the premise that organisations identify talented people, match them with the right roles and develop them through the organisation to positions of increasing responsibility. However, there’s evidence that talent strategies are flawed by a tendency to make ‘attribution errors’ – psychological factors that influence how we perceive and assess others.

One problem is that high levels of individual confidence can be mistaken for talent.  Recent research from the University of California suggests that individuals in high status positions have far greater levels of overconfidence than others – they are not just highly confident, they display levels of confidence to the point where others might describe them as ‘arrogant’, ‘conceited’ or ‘egotistic’. In psychological terms, highly confident people emit more ‘competence cues’ – they’re louder, more outspoken and more self-assured, and these attributes are often confused with ability.   It seems that if you truly believe you’re more competent than everyone else, others will eventually start to believe that you are!

Overconfidence often masks a lack of actual talent – anyone who’s watched TV shows such as ‘The X Factor’ or ‘The Apprentice’ will be familiar with the over-inflated self-belief displayed by participants, sometimes bordering on delusional.  On TV, the reality is quickly revealed – those claiming to be great singers or sharp business people are quickly shown to be highly untalented. I suspect the reason for these shows' popularity is that we all secretly enjoy watching the bubble of misplaced self-belief burst, as well as the pleasure of watching a hugely talented but unassuming person succeed. However, while the talent gap can be revealed by ten seconds of bad singing, the gap is much more difficult to identify in an organisational setting – the claim to be a great business leader can take years to be exposed as a lie.

This is the paradox of talent management – sometimes the least competent people end up taking charge, while talented people go unnoticed simply because they do not give out the necessary competence cues.  Organisations can become dysfunctional when leaders lack the ability (or are too lazy) to seek out evidence of actual talent, preferring to believe exaggerated claims of competence.  Worse, over-confident bosses often employ like-minded subordinates, with the possibility that entire layers of over-confident management are hired and ‘groupthink’ sets in – a condition where unreasonable risks are taken and irrational thinking occurs.  Even more terrifying, the research indicates that when over-confident people fail, it is often attributed to factors such as poor market conditions, bad luck or incompetent colleagues, while success is attributed directly to the individual.

The second talent paradox is that business leaders tend to assume that the future of the organisation is in the hands of a few highly talented individuals, the ‘chosen few’, who are sprinkled with fairy dust and given accelerated career progression.  However, in many cases, success is not due to an individual, but to the collective efforts of a strong team, or perhaps even an organisational culture which enables the individual to perform.  In football[1], a great goal by a talented striker usually relies on a great pass from another equally talented team-mate – but credit goes to the person who gets the ball over the line. This is another example of a fundamental attribution error – we believe people possess special talents, when in fact their success is a result of the combined talents of others.  For example:

  • Football coaches are successful at one club, only to fail miserably when they move to another.
  • Great sports players experience a downturn in performance when they are no longer working with equally talented team mates.
  • Successful TV presenters or musicians attempt a solo career, but become less successful without the creative skills of their lower profile colleagues.
  • When investment bankers change firms, their performance often plummets, revealing that their apparent individual success was actually linked to wider organisational factors, chance or support from co-workers. Even when entire teams transfer, the new environment or culture may limit successful performance.

Of course, genuinely talented people will surround themselves with other talented people who enhance their own talent, while those without talent often hide behind others. Anyone thinking about leaving their current organisation should consider whether their own performance is being sustained by the work of those around them; overly confident people will generally dismiss this possibility.

These ideas have important implications for HR management.  The recruitment process is a critical stage in filtering out misplaced confidence and should include seeking evidence to support extraordinary claims of great achievement.  Care should be taken that talented but modest applicants are not rejected too easily.  The performance management process should identify delusional thinking, including a strong challenge from managers to help the individual keep their performance in perspective.  Finally, many reward and career development programmes are highly focused on individuals, with the risk that too much emphasis is placed on personal rather than team development, incorrectly rewarding individual “talent” rather than team performance.

[1] For North American readers, please read soccer