SIOP Impressions: 3 Take-Aways From The World’s Biggest Conference for Work Psychology

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This week, we’ll make a brief pause in the series on work engagement, and instead take a trip to sunny Florida. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of participating in the annual SIOP conference in Orlando. SIOP is short for Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and makes up the world’s foremost association within this field. Each year, they organize a large conference with thousands of participants, attracting both top I/O psychology researchers and the most knowledgeable, progressive HR professionals.

The primary reason for my trip was to present a research paper on talent management and identity, which was great fun. What was even greater, however, was to take part of all the groundbreaking research and practices that were presented by others. After three full days, my head was crammed with all the interesting stuff that goes on around topics like engagement, selection, teams, performance ratings, and not least talent management. Since SIOP really is a hotspot for cutting-edge I/O psychology and HR, listening in to the discussions here is a good way of getting some hints about where we’re heading. So what are the hot topics? I thought I’d share three of my broad impressions from this work psychology Mecca.

  • Teams is where the action is. The key takeaway from this year’s SIOP? That the sexiest research in our field right now is done in the area of teams. Nowhere are there more cool projects, interesting collaborations, and ground-breaking methods. For instance, did you know that NASA is financing a number of skilled researchers to help them understand how to build the most well-functioning teams for space travels? And forget about surveys and simple observation – these researchers are using linguistic analysis, accelerometers, biodata, network analysis, simulations in extreme environments, and a host of other innovative methods to better understand team dynamics. No doubt, the most ground-breaking findings within our field during the coming decade will come in the area of teams.
  • Engagement is embraced in its versatility. Workshops and seminars on engagement drew significant audience all through – hardly surprising. What is new, however, is that both researchers and skilled consultants are starting to let go of the assumption that there is one golden-standard way of measuring engagement and its drivers. Apparently, big data analyses are starting to show that engagement takes very different expressions in different settings, which might necessitate more flexible measurement. And equally important; the drivers of engagement can actually vary a lot from organization to organization. Sometimes supervisor support is most important, sometimes it’s person-job fit, sometimes it’s something else. Repeatedly, the advice to HR practitioners was: Play around. Try different metrics and items, and see which ones do the trick in your organization. Clearly a new development from a discipline that is usually strict on standardization.
  • Even the Americans are questioning the talent concept. The fact that us Northerners have our issues with concepts like “A players” and “Future Stars” is no news, and no surprise. But now the day has come when even the Americans – scientists and practitioners alike – are starting to wonder if the differentiation of employees into different ranks really is the right way to go. In a crowded debate session, Alan Colquitt of Eli Lilly together with well-known professor Paul Sackett went head to head with the concept of high potentials. They argued that if the future is all about collaboration, team creativity, and boundary-crossing, we must stop focusing so much on singling out a small elite. The speakers were met with protest, to be sure – but just the fact that this debate is now being held at SIOP and draws vast interest says something about where we’re heading.

That’s it for now – of course, we will continue looking into these developments within I/O psychology and HR here on the blog. Chances are, we’re in for an exciting future.

A Deep-Dive Conversation on Talent Management


Earlier this winter, I was invited to do a filmed conversation on the state of talent management, hosted by HR consultancy firm Assessio‘s fenomenal general manager Christian Walén. The video is part of the new series Assessio Insights, which focuses on research- and data-driven approaches to people management and HRM.

Sitting down with Christian Walén, himself a brilliant psychologist and thought leader in the field of I/O psychology, to discuss my favorite topic was a lot of fun. For those of you who speak Swedish, you can find the whole conversation here. For English-speaking readers, you will find a translated, somewhat edited, excerpt below.

The State of Talent Management and the Talent Concept

Christian Walén (CW): Kajsa, I think we can agree that few concepts within strategic HRM have been so much in focus in recent years as talent management. What’s the state of talent management today?

Kajsa Asplund (KA): I would say that most companies have realized the importance of the issues, and most have also implemented a number of talent management practices, such as an annual talent review. Maybe, however, we are starting to see an increased questioning some of the basic assumptions of the “war for talent” perspective.

CW: So the hype is over? We’re approaching a new phase for talent management?

KA: I think so. We’re approaching a somewhat more mature stage, I would say.

CW: Very interesting. When talking about talent management it’s very easy to just toss the concept around. But if I understand your research correctly, there’s rather a number of different approaches and talent philosophies out there in different types of organizations?

KA: Yes. Pretty early on, we noticed that companies approach these issues in quite diverse ways. There is, of course, some kind of consensus on the notion that talent management entails the chain of attracting, identifying, developing, and retaining talented people. But the definitions of talent differ substantially between organizations, and seem to be very much related to organizational culture.

CW: You have shown that in some organizations, the view is that everyone is a talent, and should be granted the right conditions and the right leadership in order to grow. Whereas in other organizations, there is a more competitive perspective saying that only a few should really be invested in. Is that the most common dividing line, or are there others?

KA: I would say that is probably the most fundamental dimension – how common is talent? And a related issue is of course; can talent be cultivated, or is it rather fixed to begin with? An additional dimension where companies differ quite a lot is the relative focus that they put on hard-numbers performance, relative to what you could call input variables: Motivation, ambition, drive, etc. Basically, what people call potential.

Performance vs. Potential

CW: Speaking of potential – does performance at one level automatically lead to performance at the next one?

KA: Definitely not. A pretty large proportion of those that are promoted run into problems. Of course, if you haven’t performed at the lower level it is pretty unlikely that you will succeed at the next one, but that should rather be viewed as a hygiene factor. There are a number of additional factors that could cause you trouble once promoted. For instance, the new work is often of a completely different nature – the classical example being the move from an operational to a strategic role.

CW: Or going from a specialist role to managerial responsibilities.

KA: Definitely. In addition, the weaknesses that you may have been able to live with at lower levels tend to become more visible the more complex the role.

CW: What’s really interesting about what you’re describing is that even though we have come quite far in terms of structures and processes, we now need a larger focus on the individual – to analyze and support his or her growth even more. Is that in line with your findings?

KA: Absolutely. I think many companies have hit one or another fork in the road by implementing the standard version of talent management, and then realized that we need to look more at what research is saying – what we know about how people actually grow and develop, what constitutes high potential, and so on.

Developing Talents and the Risk of Talents Leaving

CW: My impression is that a lot of talent management happens at very junior levels. Then it fades out further up. Is that in line with your findings?

KA: Absolutely. Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly focused on their employer brands. Related to this, they have invested heavily in finding these young high-performers to be put in junior talent programs, which are supposed to work as catapults towards higher positions. But when it comes to building the complex competencies that will be necessary in order to take on more senior roles, investments have not been as large.

CW: So what does talent development usually look like in practice?

KA: The most common version is to put these individuals in either a talent program or a passive talent pool, which basically equals a list of people that should be considered first when new career opportunities open up.

CW: So it’s the VIP lane kind of idea?

KA: Yes. The problem is, when talent programs finish, that usually becomes a pretty abrupt interruption for the talent. And there you really have a critical turning point.

CW: What happens with these individuals at that moment?

KA: Well, in research we talk a lot about the psychological contract, which is basically the employee’s perception of what am I supposed to do and what can I expect in return from the organization. What happens after a talent nomination is that the organization has effectively re-negotiated the psychological contract. Quite simply, the employee now has higher expectations on what he or she will get in return from the organization. You have gotten this talent label and were granted access to a prestigious talent program. If then nothing happens within perhaps a year upon program completion, there is a big risk that you decide to leave.

CW: Is that what you’re seeing? That these high-achievers have a higher propensity to leave if there are not enough development opportunities?

KA: Absolutely. And then we’re back to: Identifying and developing junior talent – yes, quite a lot is being done there. But the question is; what is going to happen then? What is the journey supposed to look like after the first two years?

Criticisms and New Developments in Talent Management

CW: This is super interesting. What you’re doing here is to pinpoint a somewhat more sober and critical view on talent, which seems really wise. What other critique is being directed towards talent management and the way we work with these issues?

KA: One is the very basic question of whether we should at all use the term “talent”. I see increasingly more actors questioning this, because the word talent has a number of connotations. First of all, it is associated with fixed characteristics, which could lead appointed talents to start seeing themselves as crown princes or crown princesses that can passively expect rewards from the organization.

CW: You often refer to some very interesting studies showing that when real star performers switch jobs, they don’t necessarily keep on performing. What kind of fallacy does this reflect?

KA: It’s the fallacy of thinking that talent is completely independent of context. This emanates from the very individualistic American view on talent management. Now we are beginning to understand that there really is a very intricate interaction going on between the individual, the team, and the organization, where the fit might be better or worse. You may perform better together with a certain type of colleagues, within a certain type of culture, and so on. In short, a more nuanced picture is emerging.

CW: This really underlines the importance of working with teams and culture as part of your talent management.

KA: Absolutely. So far, talent management has been extremely focused on individuals – not necessarily in the sense of really understanding how individual engagement works, but in the sense that organizations have been focusing on finding certain individuals to lift up and put in new positions. Now, there is an increasing appreciation of the importance of integrating this with work on teams and culture.

Should You Tell Talents They Are Talents?


There are certain questions that keep coming back when I ask HR or line managers what they would like research to look into when it comes to talent management. One stands out as the most common one of all: Should you tell your employees that they have been identified as talents, and – indirectly – that others have not?

There certainly are relevant concerns that can make you hesitate about putting that crown on some heads and not others. For one, managers often worry that if you tell a high-potential person that he or she is a talent, the person will start resting on his or her laurels and stop trying – a phenomenon often referred to as the crown prince syndrome (Dries & Pepermans, 2008; Dries, 2013). There is also the fear that the talent nomination will create unduly pressure and stress.

Even more common, however, is the fear of how the non-selected employees will react (De Long & Vijayaraghavan, 2003). HR managers often worry that this group will experience feelings of injustice and envy, resulting perhaps in turnover or lower engagement. There is also a cultural aspect to this worry: In the Nordic countries, traditionally associated with values of egalitarianism, singling out a small minority as “better” than the rest is more controversial than in e.g. the Anglo-saxon world.

So, how do companies handle this matter? As it turns out, there is a large discrepancy between what you might call formal and informal transparency. Church et al. (2015), who surveyed 80 companies with well-established talent management practices, found that only 34 percent formally communicate talent decisions. However, out of the 66 percent that did not formally tell employees, 18 percent reported that managers tell employees informally, and 33 percent said employees find out on their own. Thus, only 15 percent of companies seem to have employees that do not know which ones are considered talents. This is well in line with a study by Campbell and Smith (2010), where 91 percent of surveyed employees reported that they knew their own talent status, but only 69 percent of those had been formally told. The rest had figured it out on their own, or someone had told them off the record.

Studies have also shown that there might be positive effects of being told that you are a talent. Björkman et al. (2013), for instance, found that employees who knew they were considered talents were the most committed to the organization. Furthermore, Campbell and Smith (2010) found that this effect was stronger for those that had been formally informed of their talent status. Less is known about the effects of a formal notice on those not identified as talents. In one of the few studies conducted, Björkman et al. (2013) found no significant differences between those who knew they were not nominated as talents, and those that had no knowledge of their standing. What has turned out to cause a lot of negative reactions, on the other hand, is when HR decision processes are perceived as obscure. A host of studies have shown that employees’ perceived justice is severely compromised when they do not understand how HR decisions have been made (cf. e.g. Sumelius et al., 2014, who looked at performance appraisals).

Once clear conclusion can be drawn from this: Whether you formally announce talent decisions or not, the vast majority of employees will still figure them out. Further, the rather few studies conducted indicate that the effects of a formal announcement might be more positive than expected by many HR professionals – but more research is needed. One thing that seems clear, though, is that ambiguity and secrecy about talent decisions is seldom the way to avoid potential adverse impact. The risk of negative reactions is much higher if the process appears as cloudy and non-transparent.

What this reasoning also boils down to is this: The core issue is not the informing part, it’s whether you should select some employees as talents in the first place. What is the strategic value of this activity? As long as you can answer that question clearly, it will be easier to dare to be transparent.



Talent Trends for 2017, no. 3: The Networked Talent


Welcome back to the third and final part of our list of trends and developments within talent management for 2017. If age and teams are topics that are entering organizations like waves, almost forcing talent managers to take them into account, this third trend could be viewed more as a large untapped possibility. The third trend, drums please, is networks.

It is almost a truism that social networks matter immensely in organizational life. Who knows who and who talks to who affects  information sharing, the distribution of power, and people’s careers. Your centrality in organizational networks should arguably also matter for your talent status: A person who is able to establish and maintain relationships with key people is much more likely to succeed than one who tends to remain peripheral. Still, network analysis has not reached talent management to any larger extent. Big data and the internet of things might now finally become the enablers. Take the very interesting study by Woolley et al. (2010), where employees were equipped with tracking badges to see how they interacted. The study elegantly revealed which colleagues people went to for advice (and for gossip) and how information spread in the organization. This type of knowledge is invaluable for organizations, since it identifies key actors.

At the annual academic workshop on talent management, organized in Copenhagen this past september, network analysis (the outcome of which might look like the chart in the image above) repeatedly came up as a potentially extremely valuable tool for talent management. For instance, HR could use it to identify those employees that are crucial nodes when it comes to e.g. linking different departments or groups of experts together. It could also be used for developmental purposes: A high-potential person who lacks the right connections will likely need to be coached, or his or her career will stall.

So there we have them, three broad trends on the rise in talent management in 2017: Age, teams, and networks. As you can see, the common denominator is the need for HR and senior management to start challenging some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about talent. The often implicit assumption that talent management is all about attracting and retaining young, individual stars and accelerate their career trajectory is ripe for questioning, and chances are this will be the year for it.



Why a Talent May Not Always Be a Talent: The Importance of Context


“Talents, they just come in and shine from day one.” “I can spot a talent the minute they walk through the door.” As a researcher, I hear these kinds of statements quite often when I’m out talking to HR specialists and line managers about talent management. The idea of talent as a generic, stable, and portable characteristic is rather widely spread, not least in companies of North American origin. This is also the view that underpins the whole notion of “the war for talent”: There is a scarcity of talented individuals, and all organizations are fighting for the same people. A talent, according to this view, is a talent no matter where you place them. This has lead companies to focus their talent management efforts on attracting “the A players”, often not worrying too much about how to make the best use of them within the company. Just get the talents in here, and they will excel no matter where we put them.

There is some truth to this claim, of course. We know from decades of research that some stable inner traits – most notably, general mental ability and the personality trait conscientiousness – tend to predict work performance in a very broad range of roles and lines of business. In other words, there are some foundational parts of talent that you could consider portable. However, there are other chapters to the story as well.  Over the last decade, there have been increasing indications that talent is also very much a matter of context.

This line of research has been championed by Boris Groysberg at Harvard Business School. For over a decade, he and his colleagues followed a total of 1,000 financial analysts at Wall Street. One of the things they looked at was what happened when star analysts switched firms. What they found was that after changing employer (still doing the exact same kind of work), top analysts’ performance decreased significantly in about half of the cases. The drop was by an average of 20 percent, and not just in the short run. In fact, it took around five years to get back to where they were before switching jobs (Groysberg, Eling Lee, & Nanda, 2008; Groysberg, Nanda, & Nohria, 2004).

Why would this happen? Groysberg argues that portable, individual skills and abilities really only constitute one part of what you might call talent. The rest is firm capabilities, such as leadership, training, systems, teams, and reputation. Since the star performers cannot bring those capabilities with them when they move, performance is likely to drop.

However, there are also some very interesting qualifications to this conclusion. For one, moving to an investment bank with similar capabilities and culture as the old one tended to decrease the performance drop. This was supported by another study, where Groysberg and colleagues showed that similarity in structures and culture between the old and the new company had a very significant effect on the performance of a new CEO, regardless of the person’s performance in the previous role (Groysberg, McLean, & Nohria, 2006). Furthermore, the study of star analysts showed that when the stars took members of their original team with them to the new firm, the drop in performance was eased significantly. In other words, top performance is not only a matter of individuals, but also group structures.

The important role of context is not limited to the finance industry or to managerial roles. In a study that received a lot of attention, Huckman and Pisano (2006) looked at the performance of star surgeons performing surgical operations in several different hospitals. Using risk-adjusted mortality as the outcome, the researchers saw that the same surgeon’s performance differed significantly depending on the hospital he/she was operating in. Notably, the surgeons performed better in hospitals where they had performed many surgeries. Furthermore, there was no general improvement in performance the more procedures the surgeon completed in total: Performance improvement in one hospital was only related to doing a larger number of surgeries within that specific hospital. In other words, performance was closely tied to context. The authors concluded that the surgeon’s familiarity with the specific setting – key staff, team structures, and routines – was vastly important for their performance.

To conclude, these studies convincingly show that the “once a talent, always a talent” philosophy is only partly true. The individual surely brings his or her knowledge, skills, and abilities, but the context enables, enhances, hinders, or blocks. Talent development is enabled by teams, cultural fit, and deep understanding of the specific setting. This is a crucial fact to keep in mind for talent management officials in any industry.