Over the past few years, LinkedIn has estimated that anywhere between 45 per cent and 60 per cent of its more than 400 million users are dissatisfied enough with their current jobs to want to consider other opportunities. Some recruiters believe these ‘passive job seekers’ now comprise up to 75 per cent of the overall workforce. Gallup surveys have shown poor workplace engagement levels for some time now. In 2017, only 31 per cent of employees in the United States and 14 per cent in Australia/New Zealand were actively engaged at work.
We also keep hearing of leadership failures despite billions of dollars being invested in leadership development. Poor leadership is showing up at organisational, political and social levels, locally and globally. We seem to have a mismatch between the types of leaders we want compared to ones we have or are appointed. Also, diversity — in whatever category you look at — is not reflected in leadership within organisations and society and most people would agree that progress is slow.
It’s not to say there aren’t any good leaders out there, but we should ask ourselves:
- Are we selecting the right people for leadership positions?
- Are we overlooking and wasting real talent?
Below are five ways in which organisations and leaders may be overlooking and wasting real talent.
Research has identified a phenomenon called the ‘awestruck effect’ where followers are mesmerised by a charismatic leader and lose their capacity to think rationally and can be easily manipulated.
Biased leadership frameworks and interpretation
Some leadership frameworks are skewed towards certain qualities, others are more balanced. Even if the frameworks are balanced, interpretations vary and some elements are given more importance, disadvantaging people whose strengths are in the lower priority elements.
If you were to choose between people with the following qualities who to promote into a leadership position, who would you pick?
Whether we realise or not, we tend to value the left-hand column more than the right. The qualities on the right column can be perceived as not leader-like, even though they can be leadership strengths.
Mesmerised by charisma
Research has identified a phenomenon called the ‘awestruck effect’ where followers are mesmerised by a charismatic leader and lose their capacity to think rationally and are easily manipulated. For example, we may miss warning signs from a person who has made an impressive first impression, and disregard another person who has initially created a lukewarm impression. Worse still, we can let some leaders abuse their power, either because we believe they can do no wrong, or because we are too afraid to call them out when they misbehave.
We have unconscious biases and apply stereotypes not only based on visible attributes such as gender, ethnicity, LGBTIQ+, physical abilities but on less visible attributes such as personal style and perceived confidence. These biases can be unconscious or actively dismissed so that some organisations and leaders mistakenly believe that they have a meritocracy. True meritocracy is difficult to achieve because, in the words of the distinguished American sociologist, Professor Michael Kimmel, ‘privilege is invisible to those who have it’.
Resulting biased selection/promotion/assessments
Even if organisations use blind CVs as a way of limiting unconscious bias based on names, the traditional recruitment/selection/promotion approaches still makes it difficult, if not impossible, for some talented people to get through the hoops.
Personality profiling — Unconscious bias against some personality traits still exists. For example, eliminating introverts from the talent pool.
Interviews — Interviewers may not be attentive or skilled enough to uncover real talents. Expertise and substance of some talented people may require better questioning and listening skills.
Leadership assessment centres — Many assessment centres focus on group work, speaking up, thinking on your feet and preparing presentations quickly, to the disadvantage of people who prefer to prepare well, read, research and reflect.
Referees — Referees are usually more senior. A candidate’s leadership effectiveness is rarely, if ever, assessed by their reports. As a result poor leaders who are good at managing up can be preferred over more suitable leaders.
Performance or talent assessments — Talented people can be overlooked despite all their achievements, high-quality output, strong relationships and influencing skills because they don’t fit an expected leadership style.
Resulting unproductive environment for some
For some talented people, the working environment does not harness their strengths. Open-plan offices and brainstorming are examples of environments that reduce creativity and productivity for quiet professionals. Leaders may lack the skills to adapt to different needs of people, intentionally or unintentionally forcing people to fit the mainstream approaches.
For organisations to minimise the waste in talent, you may wish to consider:
- Expanding the definition of talent and leadership, both on paper and beliefs.
- Reviewing and implementing processes and systems to minimise bias, stereotypes and the awestruck effect in selection/promotion/assessments.
- Checking whether the working environment favours some more than others, and make adjustments.
The cost of wasting real talent cannot be ignored, as people who are overlooked can lose confidence, give up, disengage, burn out or leave.