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Measuring Invisible Talent Part 2 by Charley Morrow

October 8, 2012

Last week, we featured Dr. Charley Morrow’s piece on Measuring Invisible Talent. This week, we conclude with how people react to being measured and whether or not we should continue to measure.

In general, physical measurement has few side effects. If you measure the length of a cabinet, you don’t affect the cabinet, and the cabinet isn’t likely to react. Talent, unlike inanimate objects, is affected in complicated ways by measurement. People react to measures.

In fairness, some physical objects are affected by measurement. When checking tire pressure, a small amount of air escapes. This affects the tire pressure. This is a simple example of an observer effect, which has been well documented in physics. For example, a glass thermometer absorbs thermal energy when taking a measurement.

Observer effects on physical objects are generally unsurprising and small. Talent’s reaction to measurement is complicated and can be large.

The effect can be positive. Measurement can lead to motivation, increased effort, and more focus. Feedback and reasonable goals often lead to higher levels of performance, as we discussed in past blog posts.

Practical experience however, shows that this isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, measurement can change talent in counterproductive ways, depending on the context. Measurement can de-motivate and distract. If measures are linked to very difficult goals, employees sometimes give up, or—even worse—lose faith in the organization and disengage.

To make things worse, reactions to measurement can also motivate talent to corrupt or game the measures. Physical measurement never has this issue. Humans, however, have a major preoccupation with gaming measures. It’s so common that the famous methodologist Don Campbell, discussing program evaluation in 1975, described what has become known as Campbell’s Law:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Given these complexities, perhaps talent management should steal the nickname “dismal science” from economics:

  • The underlying dimension you wish to understand is invisible
  •  Measuring talent is imprecise and probabilistic
  •  Humans react to measures, sometimes by changing themselves, and sometimes by changing the measure

So, Do We Stop Measuring Talent?
It’s been said that since we can’t measure talent perfectly, we should simply give up and acknowledge defeat. For 30 years, some consultants have advocated getting rid of performance appraisals altogether. I’m amazed this impractical idea is still being considered.

If we don’t measure human performance, we lose a powerful motivational and learning tool. As with many aspects in life, we simply have to manage the dilemma and tension.

Measurement is flawed and we must use it. We can’t hide our head in the sand and hope these flaws will go away. The flaws are inherent in measuring, especially something as complicated as talent. If we step into the real world of human idiosyncrasies, measurement is a powerful tool that can help us improve organizational performance, ensure educational excellence, and motivate personal growth.

Now, it’s your turn: has measurement helped or deterred you in your role?

About Charley Morrow, Ph.D.:
Dr. Charley Morrow is an expert in using focused assessment methodologies to drive individual and organizational performance. During his 15 years of professional experience, he has designed, implemented, and evaluated training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions for more than 20 organizations. Much of his current work focuses on increasing accountability and developing better systems for efficient decision making in talent management departments and not-for-profit organizations.

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