Assessing Talent Better

Sometimes I’ll get a call from a client because they’re ready to fire Bob. I’ll ask a few follow-up questions and discover that there is no major policy violation, they’re really just irritated with him for an accumulation of stuff that seems important today but is somewhat minor in the big picture. In most cases I’ll convince them that they’re probably better off keeping Bob than trying to replace him and recommend they just have a conversation with him regarding their frustrations and expectations.

Then I’ll get a call a couple of weeks later to be informed that Bob’s just been promoted to supervisor. “Since our talk, he’s been doing great!”

I call this the talent assessment elevator – the speed of movement between “the penthouse suite” and “the basement.” Some small to mid-sized businesses have express elevators. A worker can go from hero to bum and back to hero within a few days or even hours.

Organizational Behavior textbooks they call this “availability bias,” which is defined as our tendency to make decisions based on information that is readily available in our memory. Decision makers can easily overvalue information that we recently received. So when we get word that Bob screwed up, “Bob’s a bum. Fire him!”  When we get word that Bob pulled us out of a ditch with an important client, “Bob’s great. Promote him!”

One of my heroes, basketball coach Dean Smith, once said, “if you make every game a life and death proposition…you’ll be dead a lot.” He knew – he lost 254 games in his Hall of Fame career! The same applies to making important personnel decisions such as whom to keep and whom to promote, based almost exclusively on recent events. The problem is, the stuff that’s in your short term memory may not be the best information to base an important organizational decision on.

So when it’s time to decide whether to fire Bob or promote him, take a few minutes and consider:
1. What knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) does Bob add to the team and how easily will it be to replace those if we send him packing?
2. What performance metrics can we use to evaluate Bob’s performance over the course of a year (or longer), so that we don’t overvalue his most recent short-term performance?
2. What KSAs plus any intangibles does Bob potentially bring to an expanded role with the organization?

If Bob has solid KSAs and has historically been a solid contributor, don’t over-manage as a result of a recent wobble. Have a conversation, if need be, or even a documented disciplinary write-up, if warranted. But investing in getting Bob back on track is going to be less costly than replacing him, almost guaranteed.

If Bob has done something worth celebrating, consider a one-time bonus or some form of public recognition, but don’t rush to put him in that supervisor role that just opened-up based solely on this single victory or recent short-term success. Evaluate his KSAs and fitness for this new position separately from his recent star performance. Otherwise, you may have just taken a solid individual contributor and put him in a supervisor role where he’s miserable and might soon be underperforming.

When it comes to your talent assessment elevator, it should be like a slow freight elevator – faster than the stairs but doesn’t make your ears pop. Organizations with an express elevator seem to habitually lose good people that they needn’t have lost because of over-reacting to both short-term performance failures and short-term performance successes.