What’s the Issue?
As a management psychologist, I have often wondered how many “false negatives” suppress the size of our high-potential talent pools. What is a false negative? It’s when we conclude that someone does not have potential to advance into managerial and leadership roles when, in fact, they do. It’s a “miss” from the standpoint of appraising talent and a person’s potential to advance.
Of course, there are “false positives” too. There probably always will be some. They are the candidates who, after being given a chance, turn out not to be what we thought they might be. Our goal there is to identify them as soon as possible. But that raises a question about what we are looking for and if what we are looking for is sufficiently valid to guide decision-making. Or, might we be biased in favor of certain demographic factors, personal qualities, and behaviors?
The answer, of course (based on research), is that there remains a bias that favors white males. But other external markers also play a role, such as an outgoing and extraverted style, and a capacity to easily socialize with and act like their bosses. Now more than ever, because we draw from a more diverse workforce, we must be willing and able to see potential in other forms. Color, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are just a few variables that may blind us and contribute to a high rate of false negatives.
I can already hear the challenges: “So, what are you saying, that we shouldn’t trust our judgment? Isn't this just another imposition of political correctness into business practices?” Legitimate questions I suppose, which I believe we can answer in the negative by the way, but they miss the point. We do not want to exchange one bias for another.
Rather, in this increasingly competitive, 24/7, global marketplace, we want to increase the size of our high-potential talent pool. Therefore, we must minimize any false negatives that may be attributable to what today’s talent market looks like, i.e., more women, more people of color, more immigrants, and more nontraditional life styles.
Okay, What’s the Solution?
First, if someone is motivated, ambitious, and willing to work, whether it’s in a quiet, dutiful manner or in a more outspoken manner, we must try to notice this energy and then understand it. We must not only see what they can do, we must also see who they are. Is their drive too much about self-interest? Do they seem to avoid conflict? Do they work till 8 PM or leave promptly at 5:30 every day?
Whatever your initial answer to these questions, what you are seeing now may not tell the whole story. People mature, change, and adapt. What looks like excessive self-interest may be undisciplined ambition or competitive drive. What looks like avoidance may be more about a reserved temperament or skill deficit in knowing how to deal with conflict. Leaving at 5:30 may be about important duties at home with child care, not a lax work ethic; and working until 8 PM may compulsiveness predictive of burnout.
Take the time to investigate more thoroughly. Get to know the person, suspend judgment, provide feedback on the potential you see and the alternative avenues he/she might take to advance and succeed in the company. Assign them work that demonstrates their capacity for stretch and growth. Specify your expectations for results and for how they achieve the results (norms of mature behavior). Watch, notice on-target and off-target performance and patterns of behavior.
How does the candidate respond to feedback, both initially and in their subsequent efforts to translate feedback into adaptive action? Adaptive development of this kind is promising. It represents an advance in self-management, and it reveals a ready-now capacity to learn and grow. Everyone will hit plateaus where they are integrating and honing what they’ve learned, so we must pace our developmental challenges accordingly.
If you are not seeing sufficient progress in the diversity and representativeness of your talent pool, it’s probably because you are missing the boat in identifying potential at time of hire, in onboarding, and/or in ongoing supervision of new talent. This is not a job that you can delegate to HR. They should be able to offer expert guidance and support, but it’s up to management at all levels to get smarter about their role in talent management and more skilled in doing it.
Finally, I would recommend that you consider making more effective use of assessment tools and strategies that can help identify individual differences. Why? Because only as supervisors and managers become able to see how very different people (personality, background, style) can get the job done, sometimes by adopting familiar approaches and skills, but other times by adapting these approaches and skills to better fit who they are, will management get smarter and more skilled in spotting potential.