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By Steve Kelman

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Talent vs. grit

men talking

Adam Grant, a young tenured professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, may be the best new researcher studying organizations in many years. I have written columns in the past on some of Grant's work on prosocial motivation, which is potentially very relevant to motivating employees in government, and I plan to write a column about his new book, Give and Take, once I've finished reading it (I'm about two-thirds through now). 

This post concerns one brief discussion he has, less related to the main theme of the book, that I think is relevant to anybody leading employees.

The book details evidence suggesting that people who turn out to be outstanding in endeavors such as music or tennis (and presumably in other ones as well) are distinguished less by extraordinary talent than by extraordinary motivation. Looking at the early experiences of concert pianists who were finalists in a prestigious international competition, researchers "discovered an unexpected absence of raw talent."  These eventual bloomers did not win many of their early, local competitions. They also typically had piano teachers from their neighborhoods rather than experts.

What distinguished these outstanding pianists from others was that they practiced much more than did their peers, the researchers found.

When researchers interviewed top tennis players, they found that their first coaches "were not exceptional coaches. …What this first coach provided was motivation for the child to become interested in tennis and to spend time practicing."

There are two lessons here, one for individuals and the other for managers, supervisors and leaders. For individuals, there's a nice lesson that Edison was right about genius being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. For managers, there is a lesson about how to improve employee performance. It's not (mostly) about finding geniuses, but about motivating employees in general. "Persistence is incredibly important," Grant quotes Tom Kolditz, a one-star general and head of the leadership faculty at West Point. Another professor, who has gotten outstanding performance from ordinary students in accounting classes, says, "setting high expectations is so important. You have to push people, make them stretch and do more than they think possible." 

Do you have suggestions for making federal managers and supervisors better at this?

Posted on Sep 12, 2013 at 10:52 AM

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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 18, 2013

You mentioned that this person was a young tenured professor. I think this is part of the problem. There are too many old professors. It isn't that I have anything against old. I'm 56 but old thinking. It is this way because it has always been this way. That is the dangerous thinking. Not only is it inside the box thinking but inside a corner of the box. There are plenty of young thinking and innovative older people but they tend not to be in management roles particularly in government. And what if an SES is a roadblock? It is next to impossible to get rid of them just like it is next to impossible to get rid of a tenured professor. Even if everyone would benefit by not having certain people in the positions they are in.

Mon, Sep 16, 2013 Al

I've found that the musicians who are able to diagnose and solve their technical problems and tend to be the best ones. Less time spent doing this means more time mastering new rep and becoming more secure in the instrument. Self criticism + Self Analysis + Grit= a great musician. I had only two out of three, which meant I was OK. Now I work for the Government.

Fri, Sep 13, 2013

I am left wondering how much of this is attributed to self-motivation rather than imposed motivation imposed. Implications for federal managers may be less about motivating employees but more so how to hire motivated employees with basic talent and ensure that the level of motivation is maintained, thus allowing that talent to develop. Others have written about the mistaken assumptions regarding talent and ability as well (Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcom Gladwell). Thinking about this in the context of leadership is another interesting approach. The implications are that leadership can be taught with proper motivation. This may be a dubious proposal. There are ample "leadership development" programs in the federal government, but just as a person without hand-eye coordination cannot hit a baseball, there may need to be some innate abilities that can allow for self motivation to result in high motivation to successfully lead others.

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