Talent Isn’t Everything

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You can’t fix a broken situation by hiring better talent. There, I said it—and it feels almost blasphemous. But we’ve all seen great hires step into a dysfunctional environment and gradually become part of the existing (dis)order. As much as we hope to change organizations by hiring great people, the fact remains that existing conditions just carry too much weight.

 Photo credit: Bksimonb, Wikimedia Commons

This is not a new phenomenon. One of the greatest “strengths” of the Han Chinese of Medieval China was their ability to absorb and assimilate conquerors. Historians of the era agree:

“The conquerors in some cases took over so much [of the local culture] that they soon disappeared as foreigners and came to be regarded as Chinese.”[1] 

Unfortunately, while the power of the status quo may protect existing systems and cultures from being taken over, it can also prevent new ideas and new approaches from taking root—even when they’re actively sought!

Why Hiring Can’t Fix What’s Broken

Mark Weber, PhD (Associate Professor, Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship & Technology Centre, University of Waterloo), recently shared some social psychology insights at a local conference. Contrary to expectations (and the title of the session!), his presentation was far from dry. In fact, it was highly informative, entertaining and relevant. As he shared examples illustrating the impact of situation and circumstance on individual behavior, one thing became increasingly clear: we can’t solve organizational problems through improved selection.

No matter how talented incoming hires may be, if they land in a dysfunctional or disabling environment, they will eventually become part of the problem or leave. To look at it another way, even a superbly trained Olympic swimmer can’t win when swimming in a pool of molasses!

First, Change the Workplace

One of the fundamental principles of modern quality improvement is captured in the words of D. M. Berwick:

“Every system is perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results that it achieves.”

To change results, it’s first necessary to change the system. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that talent isn’t important. Having the right people on board is critical to the success of any organization. But first you have to create the environment that will enable those people to deliver their best and exemplify the behaviors you seek.

What might that mean to your organization?

While attitude and personality make a great difference in people’s approach to life, research demonstrates that the situations people encounter on a daily basis are much greater predictors of behavior.[2] This is true because people’s need to conform to the expectations of a group and the demands of a particular environment usually override individual preference. Fitting in is a powerful motivator.

To fix a broken workplace situation, first create an environment and culture that enables the desired behaviors, put the systems in place to support those behaviors, and then hire the best talent you can find to deliver exceptional results.


What are you doing to create an enabling environment in your workplace? NetSuite TribeHR can help. Try it free today!

[1] Wolfram Eberhard, Conquerors and Rulers Social Forces in Medieval China.

[2] Kelley, H. H. & Stahelski, A. J. (1970), Social interaction basis of cooperators’ and competitors’ beliefs about others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(1), 66-91.

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