Is line management bias holding back your talent?

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If you’re compiling a talent pool – and you want to include the best people and those with the most potential - be wary of relying solely on the judgement of your line managers.

Organisations rightly want to identify which employees have the capability and potential to add real value, so they can nurture, engage and retain them. But many HR teams find it hard to articulate exactly what they mean by ‘potential’, so it’s often left to a line manager’s gut feel whether or not someone is deemed to be talent.

The whole process is therefore vulnerable to any psychological bias that managers might have. Studies have shown that managers, whether consciously or unconsciously, are inclined to see potential in others who look and sound like them; in terms of their background, education, gender and ethnicity.

To overcome management bias – and make more informed decisions about who really does have talent and potential – HR teams need to use and interpret data more effectively.

For example, when 360-degree feedback is used in the talent identification process, something very interesting happens. If you examine the ratings that managers give their team members, you can create a rank order of the talent in your organisation. But if you remove the manager ratings and focus on other ratings for the same people – from peers, customers and direct reports – it can completely change the ordering. A very different list of people could emerge as your talent.

So rather than simply relying on the opinions of managers – or the views of an interview panel, if a talent review board exists – HR teams should take a more holistic and investigative approach when identifying talent.

Be specific about what people in senior roles will need to do over the next three years. Then for each required competency, think about who would have a valid opinion on that. For example, an individual’s peers may be well placed to assess that person’s ability to think strategically, or direct reports might be able to rate their emotional intelligence. When you’ve decided on the best ‘assessors’ for each competency, you can then filter your 360-degree feedback data to show those people’s views of these specific areas of expertise. If you then rank people on this basis, you’ll soon see who has the potential to succeed in the future.

If individuals are rated as having potential by everyone except their manager, it could mean that there’s an issue with the manager-subordinate relationship. A blindspot could exist where the line manager doesn’t see what everyone else sees in that person’s performance.

This might be an innocent mistake or it could be something more sinister. A manager may deliberately downplay someone’s skills because they’re good performers and they want to keep them. Equally, they may overplay someone’s skills in order to move them out of the team.

Managers may not be wholly impartial when it comes to identifying talent but rather than removing them completely from the identification process, it would be better to amend their role. Rather than judging or rating people, line managers could engage in coaching-style conversations to help individuals build on their strengths, understand their development needs, set objectives and improve their performance.

If you’re acting on the opinions of line managers when you’re trying to spot potential, there’s a danger that you might miss the real internal talent. The right data from the right people can help you make a more informed decision.

Debbie Hance is head of business psychology at talent management software company Head Light

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