Care with Labels – Lessons for Talent Management

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This blog post is from Working with ACT, a blog I co-author with Rachel Collis.

Be careful with labels. That’s what Julian McNally warns in his excellent blog post: “Labels, including diagnostic ones, are only useful to the extent they enable constructive action”.

This got me thinking about labels within organisations. One of the most common is the label ‘talent’. This is the idea that organisations have a small number of workers who are ‘talent’ – as first decreed by Mckinsey’s in their 1997 paper The War for Talent.

Identifying the top 5 or 10% of performers allows organisations to focus their resources on developing a small number of people and to groom them for senior leadership positions.

But what else results from assigning the ‘talent’ label? This is only my view – but based on my own experience of both being identified as ‘talent’ and not, this is what I observed:

When I was first selected as talent, I thought it was tremendous. I did some great training courses and it gave me a confidence boost. But the effect of this enhanced confidence was like monetary inflation. I simply had more to say about subjects I knew too little of.
Because talent was a label assigned to me, not my behaviour, I assumed that my talent was permanent. It became my formula for success, dressed up in the weasel words of ‘strengths’. This made me far less likely to question the workability of my approach and far more likely to cling to being ‘right’.
As a result my job became one of impression management. I did not pay attention to performance but rather the appearance of performance.
The first rule of impression management is to avoid mistakes. Especially in an organisation of very bright people. But trying to avoid mistakes is not a great recipe for creativity, learning or improving performance.
Finally, being labelled as talent encouraged me to persist in goals which had nothing to do with my values. I climbed the ladder, only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.

Overall, therefore, I would say being labelled as talent hindered my performance. And in my next post, I am going to describe the effect of not being labelled talent…