Talent spotting for beginners

September 10, 2010

RFIf you have ever watched an Olympic swimming race you may have noticed that the best swimmer always seems to be in Lane 4. You won’t find Michael Phelps, for example, starting off in Lane 1 or Lane 8, or indeed any of the other remaining lanes. This is because lanes are assigned by seeding time, with the fastest, by tradition, being placed in Lane 4. And so that’s where we look when the race is underway. Our eyes are drawn to the likely winner.

The same sort of thing happens when we are selecting talented staff. We look for a winner. This means we want everything to be in place, the ‘full package’ to be on display, with all the boxes ticked. Frankly what we are after is someone who is above average; preferably well above average, right across the board.

Mind the spikes

But is this sensible? On the surface it appears to be the most logical thing to do, however really successful people often have ‘spiky’ profiles. It doesn’t matter what you look at, and how many competencies you measure, the real hotshots are exceptional at some things and pretty average at others. Pick any successful entrepreneur or business leader and what you notice is their key strength. Chances are this is what has got them to the top. So it’s not that they don’t have any weaknesses, in this respect they are the same as everyone else, but what they do possess is an area of massive competence.

Back with our swimming analogy, sure the best thing to do is to look in Lane 4 if you’re after a champion swimmer; but if you’re looking for something else, make sure you cover the entire pool. Otherwise you might just miss what you really want. So it is that Richard Branson famously has trouble distinguishing between gross and net profit, and yet runs a multi-billion pound empire; and other business guru’s frequently lack the personal touch, but still manage to inspire us.

This brings us onto another important point. Well two actually. Firstly it’s wise to remember that a spiky profile can be the sign of great potential – but that in a well balanced organisation any weaknesses that come with it can be compensated for by people with complementary strengths. Secondly, that you may ultimately be wasting a great deal of money on training and development! Why? Because if all of this is true you want people to play to their strengths, to reinforce their strengths, not to try and drag an area of comparative weakness up a few notches – but probably never to a level that will make any difference.

In search of excellence

The upshot is that you should go out of your way to attract as broad a range of people to your organisation as you can. But you obviously want those with high levels of self-awareness as they will have the insight to be able to maximise their strengths. This is something on which you cannot compromise, and one way of detecting this ability is to explore a person’s emotional intelligence. Also to be tuned to those factors that might ‘derail’ success. What is it in a person’s character that in uncontrolled excess could lead to disaster?

However the main point is to give everyone the opportunity to display excellence. Spot their distinctive talent and you will discover the key to their potential success. But to do this may take more than just an interview and a few psychometric tests. You’re now in the domain of serious business psychology.

If you never change your mind, why have one?

August 31, 2010

… A quick thought for those who need to complete a personality questionnaire for selection or development purposes. It’s supposed to reflect your typical behaviour so play about with the answers if you have to – the person on the receiving end needs your best estimate of your personality. First thoughts are not necessarily the most accurate!

Cheese + Cheese = Cheese

August 27, 2010

The world’s most popular book on organisational change is called ‘Who Moved My Cheese’. It has sold (an amazing) 24 million copies. It’s basically a motivational work that explores change by looking at the reactions of two mice and two miniature humans during their hunt for cheese in a maze.

Allegorically the ‘maze’ is where we work and what we want is the ‘cheese’. Along the way we learn that change happens (the cheese keeps moving), that we should anticipate change (get ready for the cheese to move), monitor change (smell the cheese often so that you know when it’s getting old) and so on.

It’s actually a rather charming story. But it also gives the illusion that change is simple to understand and to cope with. It isn’t. It’s complicated and messy.

Some managers hand out copies of the book in advance of a change initiative. Perhaps in an attempt to label resistant employees as not being prepared to ‘move with the cheese’ or ‘enjoy the taste of a new cheese!’

I suspect you can see where I’m going: management parables are fine but communicating the need for change requires something rather more subtle. And the worst thing you can do is to be patronising, or cheesy for that matter.

Who Moved My Cheese’ was written by Spencer Johnson and is published by Putnam Adult.

Photo credit: Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

New psychometrics: ‘ego-depletion’ & self-regulation

August 9, 2010

Recent research suggests that when we engage in processes like decision-making, the use of initiative, or controlling our emotions, we use up a finite source of brain energy. Running down this energy significantly affects future performance. So what’s required is a measure of self-regulation. That way we can see what’s happening. Interested? View:


The Zen of Business Psychology

July 19, 2010

My tutor at Exeter University, the late Denver Daniels, was keen that everyone read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a Marmite sort of book in that you either love or hate it. However deep in its internals the author says this: ‘The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.’ Apart from being a neat summary of what science is about, it also has resonance with business psychology, because business psychologists are trying to sweep away unhelpful heuristics, accepted and incorrect wisdoms, and all the other paraphernalia that gets in the way of really understanding another human. And clear understanding is what is required before anything else, however fancy, can happen.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenenance was written by Robert Pirsig and is available from Vintage books.

A great book on organisational behaviour!

July 2, 2010

If you want to read a contemporary book on business psychology that spans individual, group and organisational behaviour, which gives you an idea of how psychological thinking has developed in these areas, and brilliantly covers the options for HR and OD practitioners, Eugene McKenna’s slight little 816 page tome is the one for you: Business Psychology & Organisational Behaviour, Psychology Press (2006). Seriously, if you would like to know what it’s all about, this is a very good place to start.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

May 21, 2010

The culture-breakfast thing is an expression usually attributed to the great management thinker, Peter Drucker, and is one that neatly captures the essence of business psychology. So plan all you like, if you want to be successful you need to work out what brings you together as an organisation.


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