Your big idea has just secured venture capital funding. It's time to hire a team. What kind of candidates do you look for? If you instinctively go for the smartest people in the room, then you've just fallen into an "Intelligence Trap."

In his new book The Intelligence Trapauthor David Robson explores the paradox of "too much talent".  He underlines a nuance that is often forgotten: too much talent in a team does not always equate to better performance. On the contrary, too much talent can sometimes cause a project to fail.

This paradoxical phenomenon was showcased to spectacular effect in the Enron Corporation collapse of 2001, according to Blink author Malcolm Gladwell writing in the New Yorker in 2002. Gladwell suggested a disproportionate emphasis on talent nurtured a culture where it was more important for employees to perpetuate the illusion of talent than it was to admit to being wrong.

Robson points out, however, that too much talent is not uniformly detrimental in all contexts. A 2014 collaborative study by researchers from INSEAD, Columbia and VU University found a team is more vulnerable to a "too-much-talent" effect if its dynamics are based on cooperation.

An  example of this is the Euro 2016 soccer championships where the England team, which had twenty-one star players, lost against the Iceland team which had just one. In baseball, a game that requires less cooperation, the "too much talent" effect is relatively rare.

In The Intelligence Trap Robson explores some strategies that can help to avoid the "too-much-talent" paradox when hiring a talented team.

1. Too much talent can give rise to a power struggle.

A team composed of high-flyers is more susceptible to a power struggle than a team with individuals used to more subordinate roles.

Each high-flyer feels the need to preserve their "leader" status, which creates role confusion and threatens team dynamics.

Taking care to define team structure and each individual's role allocates territory to each team member within which only they hold power.  Defining a decision-making strategy before decisions are taken can minimize  ego-driven conflict during the decision-making process.

2. Too much talent emphasizes competition over cooperation.

If a team member perceives their status is threatened by high-flying peers, they may prioritize protecting their status over performing as a team. Status threat damages trust and cooperation. 

Hiring a socially skilled candidate who will glue the team together to increase cooperation will have greater positive impact on the team's productivity than simply hiring another talented team member.  

Robson suggests "judging someone's emotional perceptivity --whether they draw people out and listen or whether they have a tendency to interrupt and dominate".

3. Too much talent leads to talent redundancy.

Too dominant a leader who prevents talented individuals from contributing ideas risks leaving a significant portion of the team's potential talent unharnessed.

At the same time, talented members who are used to leadership roles will suffer from low self-worth, cynicism and a slump in motivation. 

Talent redundancy can be avoided by routinely allocating time for each member to contribute during team meetings and sharing decisions with transparency. Giving everyone a protected seat at the table, acknowledges the worth of talented employees. 

Robson points out that although the optimal ratio of high flyers within a cooperative team has been shown in some studies to lie between 50 and 60 percent, this threshold can shift with good leadership. A strategic leader who provides role clarity, eliminates status threat and removes barriers to cooperation, can protect a team from the negative effects of too much talent. 

Published on: Apr 8, 2019
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