The neuroscience of talent management

Posted on March 13, 2014. Filed under: Human Capital, Interesting Articles | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Karen Borgelt, a ‘Neuro Social Science’ expert, weighs in on the neuroscience of talent management and what we can do to build winning teams.




It seems that every few years we are confronted by jargonistic words and phrases that seem to be revamped versions of earlier ones. Anecdotal reports indicate that “Talent Management” is one such phrase. Even though the term has been in common use since the beginning of this millennium, talent management has generally not been embraced in organisations as well as it might. Why is this? Feedback to this question seems to indicate that the term Talent Management is either largely not understood or the focus of talent management is limited in most organisations. With this in mind, let’s go back to basics.

What is talent management?

Generally speaking, talent management has to do with:

  • Recruiting and/or developing an ongoing pool of eligible, skilled, and knowledgeable people at all organisational levels
  • Preparing them for, and appropriately placing them into, suitable roles (ahead of a need)
  • Ensuring they are technically and behaviourally capable of performing their duties to a defined standard and level of performance
  • Ensuring they are appropriately supported and developed for their current and future roles

In following these guidelines, talent management provides the organisation with the necessary quantity and quality of human expertise when it needs it, which makes it possible for the organisation to achieve its short and long-term goals. Now this might seem an overly simplistic view and many may think that their organisation is already doing this, however, it’s not always the case.

A closer look

The concept of talent management has been long understood in the sporting world where clubs ‘buy in’ or develop and support up-and-coming players through the ranks. However, how many sportspeople do we hear of who display brilliant on field (technical) skills and yet their off-field (behavioural) antics bring them and their club (or even the game) into disrepute?

Sporting clubs are not alone in managing the technical aspects over the behavioural aspects of their ‘talent’. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognise poor talent management while it is occurring, but we do see the fall-out.

To name but a few of the issues, demotivation, absenteeism, stress, lack of commitment, lack of productivity, cliques, high staff turnover, regular external recruitment and even complaints, industrial disputes and bad reputations can all be linked to poor or ineffective talent management.

Thankfully, there are organisations that understand that talent management is not only paramount for performance, but also that it requires a balance between developing and aligning a person’s technical and behavioural knowledge, skills, and behaviour with the organisation’s needs.

A fitting metaphor

yachtPerhaps the effects of comprehensive talent management can be viewed through the eyes of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. A yacht can be likened to an organisation. It is an entity in its own right as is an organisation. It has a purpose and a goal; people work in it and for it so that it can achieve its short and long-term goals; it has owners or investors; it has a Skipper who can be likened to a CEO and a crew (like staff) of specialised, well trained people.  Just like an organisation, a yacht has to be a safe place in which to work and has to be in good shape so that it is able to stay afloat and compete with others in its own class.

Of course if the boat has any chance of winning it can’t rely on the quality and seaworthiness of the vessel alone. The winning edge usually comes down to not only the level of technical talent displayed by the skipper and crew (their sailing ability) but also a myriad of behavioural aspects such as their ability to work together, respecting the command of the Skipper and the other crew members, communicating in ways that support the efforts of the race,  the ability to make good decisions and executing them, and speedily acting and reacting to ever changing and challenging conditions without getting into unmanageable trouble.

Having a highly skilled compliment of talented people at all levels, who are on-board; are in the right place at the right time and who make and act on the right decisions and do so, is paramount if dire consequences are to be avoided. In a yacht race the effects of poor performance and poor knowledge and skill sets can be immediately seen. So it is for organisations. Unfortunately although the symptoms might be present, they are often go unacknowledged or are not addressed until a crisis looms.

Again, why does this happen?

An understanding of the brain

Well, there are many reasons, and they all have to do with the workings of the brain. The explosive advances in neuroscience over the last fifty years have provided even non-scientists with powerful insights into how the brain functions from its most basic unit – the neurone – to the complex networks of interconnections made in the brain that are at work with every thought, action, reaction and experience in our lives. How and why leader’s lead, why we follow certain leaders, how we learn, make decisions, interact, work or not work within a team, what makes us stressful or emotional, how well we identify and manage talent, and so much more can be explained and enhanced with an everyday understanding of the brain and what is at work in these situations.

Talent management is not another jargonsitic term. It’s at the very core of your organisation, right here and right now. Your organisation is already launched, is at full sail, and is competing on the high seas of competition. It is a crowded race. Luck and instinct, like the weather, may play a small part; however, how well your organisation meets and conquers the elements will mostly depend on the degree of technical and behavioural talent within the organisation (at all levels) and how well that talent is managed at all stages of what is an ongoing cycle.

If you really want the winning edge, having a basic understanding of the neuroscience that underpins talent management is like having a GPS to keep you on course. And the good news is that, for most organisations, it’s not too late to get into the race but it will take good, ongoing talent management if you want to win.


karen-borgelt-phdKaren Borgelt, PhD, is a leading researcher and practitioner in the field of Neuro Social Science with particular emphasis on the neuroscience of leadership. She has more than 25 years experience in delivering consulting services, training and mentoring to national and international clients in the following fields: organisational development; organisational behaviour; leadership and management development; and transitional change and transformational change.

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