Life on the bench: the threat of underutilised talent

Wow. I seem to have stirred up a hornet’s nest. I’ve had quite a few recruiters contact me challenging my closing comments in a recent Pulse article. As a reminder what I said was:-

“Having too much talent can be as problematic as not having enough. You only have to look to some sports to see that’s true. Dissatisfied A players can be truly destructive in the dressing room. And, I suggest, in every other type of team.”

What some seem to have interpreted that to mean is don’t hire the best candidate. You couldn’t be more wrong. In fact by the time you reach the final hiring decision it is usually too late. The real problem occurred way back in the process.

The issue I really wanted to get at is how many times do we over-specify recruitment requirements? As I put it previously: “Do we demand Superwoman when Mr Dependable would do?” I reckon we do it a lot more than we’d be prepared to own up to. And when we can’t find someone with a cape and mask we cry “skill shortage”.

My real point was very simply this: highly capable people lose motivation fast when they can’t put their unquestionable abilities to the test. And the outcome is even more straightforward: de-motivated people do a progressively worse job. With the net result that engagement, quality, customer service and innovation take a nosedive.

You see it in sports teams all the time. The great talents that spend all their time sitting on the bench watching others play. They joined the team for a big fee and are no doubt on good wages. But what they really want is their feet on the grass. When that doesn’t happen they become agitated and unhappy. And then the problems start.

Exactly the same goes on in offices, stores and restaurants. Take a Michelin trained chef and ask them to make sandwiches for a living and no doubt, no matter how well you pay them, boredom will set in. They may leave (if you are lucky) but it is just as likely they’ll stay and cause all sorts of problems. Bright people always make the best “organisational terrorists”.

If you need proof you can have too much talent there’s some great research out there. Try starting with this article From the Association for Psychological Science.

So here’s my challenge back to recruiters: how hard do you challenge your clients when taking a brief?

All of us, given the chance to state what we would ideally like in life, tend to over-specify. Ask me what car I’d like next and I’d probably say an Aston Martin V12 Vantage. Do I need one? Absolutely not. Would I ever use the 573Ps of power or hit the 205mph top speed? No. So buying one would see most of its potential depreciate on my drive.

Similarly when asked what staff we’d ideally like we inevitably come up with the profile of a super hero. Just in case the world stops spinning or we get invaded from outer space.

As I discovered recently, planners talk about “one in a hundred year” events when considering projects. They seem to ignore them most of the time. Yes there might be a small risk of a flood sometime in the next century but equally there might not. I think recruiters need to have the same mindset and instill it in hiring managers.

The key to successful recruitment is to get the job analysis right at the outset and be clear what the job is really like 95% of the time. You need to find someone who will find that rewarding and stimulating because that will be their daily reality. Never forget that research (including from Chiumento) constantly suggests that something like 40% of the workforce don’t want to be in the job they are currently doing. We contribute to that by over-recruiting.

The recession undoubtedly exacerbated the problem. Managers got used to being in the driving seat. Lots of candidates chasing too few opportunities gave them a temporary window of bounty. Now the boot is literally on the other foot. The quality of candidates may seem to go down as a result – but is that always a bad thing? What’s wrong with engaged, productive, reliable and happy B players in many, many jobs? Especially when the alternative is hiring the equivalent of Marvin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

Over-recruit at your peril.

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