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Matthew Haynes
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If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Research shows transparency about talent management programs isn’t always the best course

Every manager wants to nurture their best employees, but the challenge is doing that without alienating less talented employees.

Doctoral candidate Anand van Zelderen, KU Leuven, Belgium, and his colleagues Dr. Nicky Dries, also with KU Leuven, and Dr. Elise Marescaux, IESEG School of Management, France, discuss how best to do this in their recent study, “Managers should remain secret about talent status.” Their research was selected by the conference program committee as one of the top posters submitted to the 2019 SIOP Annual Conference.

“Talent management is a hot topic,” said van Zelderen, “and a real struggle for many managers as they try to find a strategy that simultaneously identifies, develops, and ties so-called ‘talented’ or ‘high-potential’ employees to their organizations, while minimizing potential negative effects to those excluded from such ‘talent pools’—which typically contain only 1 to 10% of employees.”

Questions the researchers wanted to explore were how big should those talent pools be, and how open should managers be about inclusivity or exclusivity?

“We found that making talent management more inclusive and transparent will not automatically lead to more optimal employee reactions,” van Zelderen said. “To the contrary, our results indicate that keeping such programs truly focused on an elite that is clearly different from the average employees while allowing employees to maintain their self-esteem by not communicating ‘too openly’ about the program and all the specific reasons why they are not in it, may lead to the best outcomes overall. But it is clear these findings create new challenges in terms of equality of opportunity and ethics.”

Using vignette research to create various scenarios, the team surveyed 626 Dutch-speaking employees in Belgium. They measured envy, self-esteem, turnover intentions, and work effort. 

“Early into our research, we realized many organizations were making significant changes to their talent management strategies,” Dries said. “They were usually increasing the percentage of employees selected into a talent pool specifically out of fear of how more exclusive or elite programs would go over with excluded employees. We set out to test the assumption that increasing the size of a talent pool leads to better employee reactions to talent management, and what we actually found is that—depending on how you look at the issue—the exact opposite might be true: that the more exclusive a talent management program, the less people mind being excluded from it.”

So, even if they were not considered part of the elite, employees felt better about themselves if the talent pool was more exclusive. The team said research shows people tend to protect their self-esteem by attributing elite labels like “genius,” “talent,” or “high potential” to people outperforming them, rendering comparisons between themselves and such people less relevant and less threatening.

Marescaux added, “Ask yourself, would you be more upset being excluded from a talent program consisting of the top 1% of employees in your organization or being excluded from a talent program consisting of the top 50% of employees?”

The team hypothesized both that threats to self-esteem and envy increase as the size of the talent pool increases, and that labels such as “talent” and “high potential” may lose their meanings when applied in a more inclusive way to too many employees. Although many managers and employees believe that transparency in an organization make for a better workplace, this research found that being too transparent regarding talent management programs is not always helpful.

“We encourage organizations to carefully consider the inclusivity of their talent pools, as well as their communication strategy toward employees,” Marescaux said. “One consistent finding in our research is that being very transparent can backfire. Being excluded from a talent pool can be a very sensitive topic as we know from decades of research that most employees overestimate their own ability levels.”

The researchers said that when approaching this from a functionalist rather than an ethical angle, there are serious risks associated with full transparency. They believe ambiguity tends to work better for everyone, even for “talents,” who tend to report more entitled attitudes when their special status is made clearer to them.

They said the next step in their research is to work with talent managers about preferences around inclusion and secrecy, and measure how they expect employees to react to talent management scenarios.

“This will allow us to contrast their assumptions with the employee-level data already collected,” Dries said. “We are also doing follow-up experiments where we manipulate a lot more variables in our vignettes, in addition to talent pool percentage and degree of transparency. Finally, we hope to transition to virtual reality experimental designs in the near future, to place participants in a fully immersive organizational setting that can be customized to the needs of the study. That would allow us to examine employee reactions to sensitive situations that are impossible or unethical to study in real-life organizations while still maintaining a high level of realism.”  

For more information, you can contact, Anand van Zelderen, Nicky Dries, or Elise Marescaux

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