Little Evidence of Talent in the Winter Olympics: Business should take a lesson

I watched a lot of the Olympics over the past two weeks and the skill levels were amazing.  There were not just a few skilled performers, there were many.  Often the difference between Gold Medal Performance and Bronze was a second or less.  I said skilled rather than talented because in post event interviews when asked how they medaled, I never once heard an athlete say, “I guess it was just God-given talent.”  They all said the reason they won was because they had trained very hard for the last four or more years.

I think the problem is that they made their performance look incredibly easy, almost as if they were born doing it.  When people see someone execute a complex task easily, they want to attribute it to “talent.”  When people say someone is talented, they usually don’t realize that it devalues the accomplishment.  If God did it, what role did the individual play?  It diminishes the sacrifices the athlete made to pursue his or her dream.  They could have been relaxing, partying or hanging-out with friends.  It devalues the discipline required to practice in uncomfortable and occasionally miserable weather conditions, not to mention a schedule that requires rising to practice before school or work and again later that day before bed. I define “talent” as unrecognized practice.  There was no one who won who did not practice, and most often practice more than the ones that didn’t win.  You can’t see the practice when they perform.

 Maybe they should post the number of hours practiced on the TV screen to put their performance in a perspective that would allow viewers to better value the accomplishment. While it is not worth the ink to argue the fact that we all come into this world with different behavioral predispositions (if you want to see it, go to a hospital nursery and watch the newborn), but the evidence shows that it is more about good coaching and practice than it is what you start with.

Business should take a lesson.

From Enron to AIG, we’ve seen that an organization’s success is not assured by having smart and talented people. I think business should stop focusing solely on talent and begin to look instead at evidence that the perspective employee has a history of discipline and hard work.  Talent management people should admit that they are selecting people for increased coaching and practice, not because they have some God-given ability.  I believe that we should always select the best candidate for the job, however, the problem is in how we determine “best candidate.”  If it is determined by intelligence, we are looking at the wrong thing.  Look for accomplishments that reflect behavior patterns that have value for the corporation. This is an important lesson for all managers as their actions or lack there of impacts whether or not an employee reaches his or her highest potential.  Managers don’t teach someone to the limit of the employee’s ability, but rather to the limit of the managers’ ability.  Managers should focus on the following:

  1. Aggressively train and promote people: As a manager, it is your job to retain and develop people. A part of any reward system for managers and supervisors should be the number of employees they keep and promote within the organization.
  2. Spend the time and money to train people to fluency: One of the most costly mistakes companies make is to put people in jobs before they are fluent in the critical aspects of the job.  The amount of repetition required for fluency is far more than the average trainer understands, but the extra time pays off in happier customers and more confident and competent employees.
  3. Have a way of positively reinforcing and rewarding employees who put in extra time and effort: This requires observing behavior to make sure that htose people who put in the extra effort are not overlooked or ignored.  It has been proven that people who are rewarded for extra effort not only work harder on assigned tasks but also work harder on other tasks as well.

The business that understands that outstanding accomplishments come from good coaching and lots of practice rather than native talent and intelligence, open up an unlimited pool of potentially outstanding performers.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.