HR teams need to use and interpret data more effectively if they want to overcome management bias and spot who really has talent and potential in their organisation, according to talent management software specialist Head Light.

“Organisations rightly want to identify which employees have the capability and potential to add real value in the future, so they can nurture, engage and retain them,” said Debbie Hance, Head of Business Psychology at Head Light. “But many HR teams find it difficult to articulate what they mean by ‘potential’, so it’s often left to the opinions of managers or the views of an interview panel whether or not someone is deemed to be ‘talent’. The whole process is vulnerable to psychological bias and this could be holding back the progression of talent in today’s organisations.”

Psychological studies have shown that managers, whether consciously or unconsciously, are inclined to see potential in others who look and sound like them, in terms of their background, education, gender and ethnicity. Head Light argues that HR teams can make more informed decisions about talent if they use the right data from the right people.

“When 360 degree feedback is used in the talent identification process, something very interesting happens,” said Debbie Hance. “If you examine the ratings that managers give their team members, you can create a rank order of the ‘talent’ in your organisation. But then if you remove the manager ratings and focus on the other ratings for the same people – from their peers, customers and direct reports – it can completely change the rank order. A very different list of people could emerge as your talent.”

Head Light adds that HR teams can filter their 360 degree feedback data for the specific competencies or behaviours that they’d like to see in their future leaders, such as strategic agility, emotional intelligence, commercial awareness, interpersonal skills and the ability to influence.

“Be specific about exactly what people in senior roles will need to do over the next three years; then, for each specific competency, think about who would have a valid opinion on that,” said Debbie Hance. “For example, an individual’s peers may be well placed to assess that person’s ability to think strategically; direct reports might be able to rate their emotional intelligence. When you’ve decided on the best ‘assessors’ for each competency, you can then filter your 360 degree feedback data to show those people’s views of these specific areas of expertise. If you then rank people on this basis, you’ll soon see who has the potential to succeed in the future.”

Head Light adds that bias may not be the only reason why a manager doesn’t rate someone as having potential.

“A blindspot could exist where the manager simply doesn’t see what everyone else sees in that person’s performance or behaviour,” said Debbie Hance. “This might be an innocent mistake or it could be something more sinister. A manager may deliberately downplay someone’s skills because they’re good performers and they want to keep them. Equally, they may overplay someone’s skills in order to move them out of their team.”

Head Light recommends that rather than removing line managers completely from the talent identification process, a better way forward would be to amend their role.

“Rather than judging or rating people, line managers could engage in coaching-style conversations to help individuals build on their strengths, understand their development needs, set objectives and improve their performance,” said Debbie Hance. “This more facilitative style could help people to process the feedback they’ve received and increase their impact.”

Head Light’s checklist for smarter talent identification is:

  • Define what you mean by ‘potential’.
  • Be clear on the specific behaviours, attributes and abilities that will be required in senior roles.
  • Use 360 degree feedback to assess people for these specific criteria.
  • Remove the manager ratings from your 360 degree feedback. Does this make a difference to who is deemed to be the ‘talent’ in your business?
  • Be wary of bias creeping into any decisions on talent; introduce checks and balances into the process so you can minimise the impact of biases.
  • Involve third parties or trained facilitators in the quality checking and reviewing of your talent decisions.
  • Enable line managers to undertake more facilitative, coaching-style conversations with their teams.