Overcoming Bias: Appraisal of Talent

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Companies large and small spend billions of dollars every year on talent development and especially on leadership development - $1BB on executive coaching alone. But how skilled are they in recognizing the change, improvement, and growth that they want as a result of these expenditures?

What do those who’ve made a less than positive impression on management due to one or two highly visible faux pas, change these impressions? And does your management harbor attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions that work against forming fresh impressions of these people?

The literature is replete with tales of difficulty in achieving change at the individual and organizational level. And I’ll bet most of us can identity more than one manager or executive who struggles to let go of old impressions of a person and refresh them with new ones.

But if we cannot see and encourage the change we want, aren’t we missing an opportunity to increase the ROI of these investments? And if we take this causal factor in developmental outcomes seriously, what is it that we can do to address it?

There are three variables I think we must consider: First, we must ensure clarity about what it is we should be looking for. Second, we must remind ourselves that what we are looking for is amenable to change. Third, we must position ourselves to observe behavior and see change.

Encouraging the Change We Want

On the one hand, we can be disinclined to expect change when we believe that the requirements of change involve aspects of the person/s or culture that are inherently fixed, inelastic, or “set in stone.” Often these beliefs operate as assumptions acquired early in life.

If, for example, corrective feedback was delivered as a judgment of character (good/bad person), giving and receiving feedback may seem inherently painful, risky, something to be avoided. If it was delivered as a learning opportunity, as input for use in finding a better way – quite different!

To the extent we treat development as a matter of learning about how attitudes, habits, and behaviors work or don’t work in realizing our aims, we’ll see gaps as cues for learning how to think about things and do things differently. We’ll be readier to notice increments of change.

So, clarity of what to be looking for involves specifying patterns of behavior, including mindset, emotion, and skilled action and interaction. It’s a picture of how we’ll approach work and relationships differently, how we’ll notice improved outcomes, and how they’re obtained through changed behavior.

Positioning ourselves to notice change and thereby form fresh (current and accurate) impressions, is critical. We may do it informally day to day. But we should also jointly review targeted, work-relevant situations with others, deliberately describing/discussing the change we want to see.

Putting Observation to Use

People do not usually develop in a sudden or dramatic manner, like the transformation of caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. We do it more incrementally and experimentally. Sometimes it’s one step forward and one or two steps back. But there is a persistent, effortful, intentional quality about it.

When we pause to talk with those who are pursing development, it’s helpful to hear how they describe their experience. Are they clear about their aims, the actions required to achieve them, and do they acknowledge struggles as well as progress? Is their attitude positive?

We’ll see changes in attitude and overt action before we see the desired change in results. We’ll see episodes of success before we see a consistent pattern of effectiveness. It’s helpful to listen actively, ask questions that allow them to think out loud and without fear of judgment.

Management and those whose development they are trying to encourage are both learning. Don’t declare success too soon, but do acknowledge advances and skilled actions. At some point, both parties will notice a growing ease and facility in doing things differently.

There’s a Reason It’s Called Talent Management

What I’ve described as a learning-based approach to development involves deliberate and systematic action. It takes time, and it requires thoughtful structuring and careful attention. But a skilled touch in design and facilitation can make it a much lighter lift for management.

Part of what you’ll need to think about is how to incorporate this approach into the real work and priorities of your business. It should not look like a “program” even though, in a sense, it is. Once cultivated, this practice will go a long way toward ensuring organizational sustainability.

When organizations do this work together – HR, senior leadership, and supervisors – the ROI questions will be answered. All eyes are on the same goals and actions. The proof is in the pudding. You’re realizing your performance and budget goals with greater confidence or not - it's obvious to all.