Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Get your team from the little pond

For the ambitious, there's always this conundrum: Be the big fish in a little pond, or be a smaller fish in a bigger and presumably more prestigious pond?

Malcolm Gladwell explores the consequences of this choice in his new book "David and Goliath", and he also explores it quite dramatically in this TED presentation to a Google gathering.

His bottom line -- born out by research he quotes from extensively -- is that there are clear advantages in choosing the smaller pond when you can't be the very best in the bigger show. 

His main point in support of this thesis is that a really good talent, but not the very best talent, will have higher self esteem and achieve more because of their higher self assessment than if they measure themselves against a different and more challenging standard.

This is really a form of the cognitive bias psychologists call "prospect theory". The big idea: value, esteem, confidence, despair, joy and the like are all relative to a reference point, not to an absolute standard. (The wealthy can be unhappy and the poor can be happy, etc... it all depends on the reference from which you are measuring)

So, the data support this idea: the bottom third of performers in a pool of truly outstanding people may be in that bottom third because of self-inflicted feelings of inadequacy. Change the pool, and they may be stand-out performers.

For project managers:
Gladwell counsels: Always recruit the best from any pool, but keep in mind that the pool itself doesn't really count for much. So, regardless of a university's standing in a particular field -- say STEM because it hits so many project teams -- go to any program with STEM and get the best in that program. They'll all be winners and self-starters, accustomed to success.

Fair enough, but....

Now that you've got them, they're all in a new pool, and some of the winners are going to find themselves in the lower tier of their new pool.  Ooops, prospect theory cuts in, and problems arise!

This may call for some reshuffling, restructuring of the pools, and other incentives and encouragements to offset the effects of relative position. So, don't be blindsided by this little HR issue as you recruit your team.

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