Performance is Complicated

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USA gold medal winner Heather O'Reilly by Geoff Livingston, Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The story of success, writes that accomplishment is all about practice, timing and the doors that are opened for you along the way. In fact, Gladwell firmly believes that inherent talent has little, if anything, to do with success. He provides a number of convincing examples and trends that support his premise: success is about being in the right place at the right time with access to the right people and tools; and that mastery of a skill comes from putting in the time it takes to master it—exactly 10,000 hours, in fact.

Peak Performance: Does Practice Trump Talent? 

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin expands on this idea of practice as the primary driver of greatness by differentiating between regular practice and deliberate practice. According to Colvin, only deliberate practice makes the difference between competence and mastery. He goes on to say that deliberate practice is “hard and not fun.” Colvin further defines deliberate practice as a solitary pursuit characterized by a laser-like focus on developing specific skills and abilities required to become great in the targeted domain. Just as Gladwell identifies a “10,000 hour rule” for becoming an expert in a particular field or endeavor, Colvin refers to the “10 year rule.”

The contributions of Gladwell and Colvin are only two of the most recent views in a discussion that stretches back hundreds of years and which is rooted in the ever-controversial nurture versus nature debate.  Both Gladwell and Colvin fall on the side of nurture, believing that controllable, external factors determine whether expertise and advanced achievement are possible. The other end of the scale would suggest that innate ability (passion, intelligence, heightened memory, etc.) are the best predictors of achievement and that the amount of practice an individual needs to achieve mastery will vary depending on those innate abilities. Those who lean toward the nature side of the debate believe that practice alone is never enough.

Practice Plus Talent for Best Results 

The reality lies not in the middle of the debate but rather across the entire discussion.

  • Does practice improve competence? Of course it does.
  • Does lots of practice improve performance more than limited practice? Yes, for the most part.
  • Does focused, deliberate practice work better than unfocused, less deliberate practice? Yes again. 
  • Are innate talent and genetic traits irrelevant in the mastery equation? Apparently not.

In response to the popularity of these two books by Gladwell and Colvin, researchers are once again digging into the question of what it takes to achieve greatness. While this more recent research confirms that practice accounts for as much as 30% of the difference in achievement among top performers, it also clearly indicates that practice is not the only contributing factor.[1]

Performance is Complicated - In the World and at Work

It seems that performance is not easily defined; nor can the process to achieve greatness in any knowledge domain be easily duplicated. In HR, we are acutely aware of this when it comes to identifying the people who will out-perform on the job. In most cases, we recommend hiring for character and personality (the traits that can’t be taught), and providing training for needed skills (i.e. focused practice). In other words, select for nature and provide the nurture.

Interestingly enough, some of the inherent talents that can best predict performance (e.g. passion, focus, willingness to do the hard stuff, and perseverance), are now being studied for their positive impact in the mastery debate.


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[1] Hambricka, D.Z., Oswaldb, F.L., Altmanna, E.M., Meinzc, E.J., Gobetd, F., Campitellie G. (2013) Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?

Office Ergonomics and Posture Correction

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Communicating With Purpose

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Lightbulb by Stefan Krause,Wikimedia Commons, Free Art License Whether you are designing a corporate-wide communications strategy, a single marketing video or a conference presentation, it’s important to communicate with purpose—on purpose. When it comes to communication, a little planning goes a long way. Following this simple three step process can help: Define your purpose. Determine your audience. Describe success. Define Your Purpose Think about what you hope to accomplish with your message. What is your objective and what would you like people to do when they hear, watch, or read your message? One useful structure …

Why HR Should Toss the Annual Compensation Review

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Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Most of us are familiar with the annual performance review process (whether we like it or not!). In addition to annual performance reviews, some companies also implement an annual compensation review process. Sometimes the compensation review is linked to the performance review process, and sometimes it’s not. But regardless of how it’s positioned, the annual compensation review is one potentially destructive practice. What Drives Annual Compensation Reviews? When a company chooses to review compensation on an annual basis, the decision is generally driven by a Finance process rather than an HR process. …

Working Offsite Boosts Creativity and Focus

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Training: It Takes all Types

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In previous blog articles we’ve talked about communications styles and learning styles, but did you know that people who deliver training fall into four distinct styles as well? If you’ve ever participated in work-related training, you know that not all trainers are created equal. Some have the ability to connect with participants and lead them through the most complex material with ease, while others lose everyone at hello. Dolphin Academy, Wikimedia Commons Multiple Training Modes for Best Outcomes As a trainer, it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses and to understand your own …

Spring Forward at Work

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Anyone who has lived through this past winter (yes, it’s over, even if Mother Nature hasn’t quite conceded the point yet!), knows that weather can affect your mood.  From the physiological and psychological reactions to reduced daylight and perpetual cold, to acute stress caused by hazardous driving conditions and having to winter-dress children every time they leave the house; life in general is just a bit harder when facing a harsh winter. Grasshopper of the ZEBRA Stelzentheater, by Katharina on Flikr On the flip side, sunny days and balmy temperatures have been shown to increase …

Why Employees See Things Differently

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In speaking with business leaders and executives, one of the most commonly expressed concerns is the difficulty they experience in getting employees to think strategically and to consider the broader business implications of their decisions and actions. Consider, for example, time. Salvador Dali, Portrait of Time, Photograph by Julo, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Time is Money Effective business executives know that time is (literally) money. That’s why they hire employees and then delegate anything that doesn’t require their presence as a leader, their expertise or their authority. They think carefully before allocating time to an activity …

Compensation Equity

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Arriving at fair compensation is not always easy. Aside from the fact that each position has a unique value to an organization and not all jobs are created equal, employers also face the challenge of recognizing and rewarding exemplary performance in a given role. Add to that the fact that people seldom agree on what’s fair and compensation design becomes that much more complicated. Freedom or Fairness by Nina Paley, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Employees consider two things when assessing whether their own compensation is fair. How their compensation compares to their co-workers. How their compensation compares to …

Compensation Design: Beyond Foundational Needs

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US Treasury, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain We spend a lot of time thinking about (and writing about) employee motivation,engagement and what it takes to create an awesome work environment with a high performance culture. But, before we can turn our sights to creating that awesome environment, there are some basics that must be addressed. As Maslow discovered, people are motivated by different things depending on their current state. This means that people’s foundational (physiological) needs must be met before more complex needs even hit their radar. In the context of the workplace, foundational needs typically relate to …

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The Latest from Workplace Tribes
Performance is Complicated April 23, 2014
Office Ergonomics and Posture Correction April 21, 2014
Communicating With Purpose April 18, 2014
Why HR Should Toss the Annual Compensation Review April 16, 2014
Working Offsite Boosts Creativity and Focus April 11, 2014
Training: It Takes all Types April 09, 2014
Spring Forward at Work April 07, 2014
Why Employees See Things Differently April 04, 2014
Compensation Equity April 02, 2014
Compensation Design: Beyond Foundational Needs March 31, 2014