Strengths vs. Learned Talents

By David Creelman

The traditional approach to training – fixing what is wrong – has given way to a widespread belief that you should play to your strengths. People love this idea. Dr Lyle Spencer, one of the founders of the competency movement, summed it up by saying: “You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it is easier to hire a squirrel.”

HR professionals also love the idea that if people believe talents are learned, not innate, they perform better.  Not only is this idea is very empowering — “be strong and you can master any skill” — it is backed by solid research.

The only problem is that these two ideas are contradictory. If someone is not good at sales, should you follow the ‘strengths’ camp and tell them to give up, or the ‘talents are learned’ camp and tell them to keep trying?

Seeking Resolution
There is value in both the ‘strengths’ and ‘talents are learned’ ideas. The trick is to see them as perspectives rather than laws of behaviour.

With any skill there is a learning curve where increased effort delivers increased ability. If a skill is one of your strengths, you will go up that curve quickly. Also, for any skill there is a payoff curve such that an increase in skill might be worth a little or a lot. If you are good at persuasion then playing to that strength can lead you to excel. If you are good at persuasion, but on the verge of getting fired because you never hand in reports on time, then fixing that weakness will have a big payoff. Of course, fixing the weakness requires the belief that talents can be learned.

So which skills should you put effort into? The answer is those skills where the effort it takes to move up the learning curve delivers a payoff. Often but not always those skills are also strengths, since you move up the learning curve quickly.  At the same time, often but not always, it makes sense to believe that skills are learned not innate since this belief enhances skill development. However, if you want to be a figure skater but have poor coordination then the belief that skills are learned may lead you down an unproductive path.

The Downside of Curves
The talk of learning curves and payoff curves is very logical, but when one wants to give advice explaining this kind of algebra is not very practical.  If we have two main training perspectives, play to your strengths and skills can be learned then it is a question of pulling out the one appropriate for the situation, not becoming a hardened advocate of one school or another.

Phrases like ‘play to your strengths’ become a short-hand way of saying ‘In this particular case, this rule of thumb is appropriate.’

Thinking of management as a collection of rules of thumb to be applied where relevant, as opposed to laws of behaviour that always hold, allows us to comfortably manage contradictions. It even leads us to doubt ourselves if we do find we are not dispensing contradictory advice. If you always say “Play to your strengths” or always say “Skills can be learned” then you are not adding value. Your value comes from your experience and ability to recognize patterns such that you can distil a complex situation and give the helpful, simple advice that someone needs.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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