Time, Talent or Incentive? What Makes For the Best Employee?

We have all heard by now the 10,000 hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Here in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia there is a plumbing company that even uses the concept in their commercials. They brag that all their plumbers have 10,000 hours of practice and thus they are the most competent and professional plumbers around. But with the reading I have done of Colvin and Pink in addition to others I have begun to wonder is it Time, Talent or Incentive that makes for the best employee.
The subtitle to Gladwell’s book Outliers is The Story of Success. He talks about example after example of people have been successful and the common denominator of that success has not been their circumstances in life nor their inherent talent, rather, that common denominator appears to have been the amount of practice time they put into their craft. So we picked up the theme that the more time we practice something the better we will be at it. Thus 10,000 hours as a plumber makes you the best plumber. But if you are a sports fan historian you know that comment misses the mark because as Vince Lombardi told us “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”. You only gain from 10,000 hour of practice if you are practicing the right things.
Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated (subtitle What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else) takes the idea of practice a step further. Colvin tells us that the practice must be deliberate practice. By “deliberate practice” he meant “… an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available, it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.” It is this deliberate practice over a period of 10,000 hours that makes for world-class performance. Deliberate practice produces deep area knowledge, insight, and an ability to notice things that others do not, whether that is an alternative solution or the speed of a tennis ball.
In his last chapter Colvin touches on “where does the passion come from” to do all this arduous practice? He says some of it may be extrinsic motivation, especially earlier on, and later intrinsic motivation. Here is where Daniel Pink steps in with his book Drive! and his discussion of motivation. Pink says true motivation is intrinsic and for people to give you their best work they must be motivated by challenge and given the freedom to perform the work that drives them.
So does this mean that we can take any person regardless of talent, make them practice for 10,000 hours in a deliberate manner, provide them with work that is challenging and we will have the end result of wonderfully performing, expert workers? Well not so fast. While Gladwell and Colvin both discounted IQ (both basically said if you had enough, an IQ of 120, then that was sufficient) recent research has shown that is not quite true.  David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz ,associate professors of psychology at Michigan State University and Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, respectively,  “…have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities.”
They showed that practice does count. “…there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.”
Hambrick and Meinz also quote some other research where “The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.” Their conclusion was that although practice, deliberate practice, accounted for a lot, so did inherent talent.
To conclude my remarks, it is apparent that talent and having talented, high-performers is not as simple as a certain number of practice hours. No everyone is going to have the inherent talent. Not everyone is going to want to put in the consistent deliberate practice that will be necessary. Not everyone is going to find your work challenging and intrinsically motivating.
Your challenge is to understand how your organization defines world-class performance and what talents and skills are necessary to produce that. Then hire the people with the talent that matches your definition and then provide a structured environment that gives them the deliberate practice needed for them to achieve higher and higher levels of performance. Structure the work so it provides them with the challenges they will be motivated by and then let them achieve.

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