Insight > Articles

The talent traps

Accelerating talented people’s development in order to give them opportunities to learn and grow can have the unfortunate side effect of pushing them out of the organisation or reducing the development impact. It can mean that their commitment and the value they create is less than expected, which is of course not the intention.

For some, the opportunities the company provides can turn out to be just the opposite. They can feel trapped by having to do what is expected and living up to others’ aspirations rather than doing what is natural for them. The opportunities that the company offer can be translated into obligations. These talented people become more focused on doing what is expected rather than doing what they’re interested in and better at than most people. Being labelled a “talent” can prove to be more of a burden than a help for some people. They might feel extra pressure that they will go a long way to live up to and experience an (often unconscious) expectation of conformity.

This is partly because the increased attention can be translated as having to do things in a certain way. It is a paradox, since talented people are often able to do what they do precisely because they do things differently than others. They use their talents in ways that stand out, which you have to be careful not to change, but instead get more out of it.

One of the psychological mechanisms that can occur in relation to naming people as ‘talents’ is idealization.

We idealize the talented people and credit them with abilities and aspects that are not necessarily based on reality but on what would be desirable. We only see the good and not the things that don’t fit into this picture. This idealization creates unnecessary pressure, which risks becoming an obstacle rather than helpful. It becomes something they have to live up to and can feel like their own personal responsibility to succeed with, leading to not reaching out for help but instead trying to do as much as possible on their own. To put it briefly, people will go a long way to live up to others’ image of them as the talent.

Another process that can occur is identification, meaning that the talented individual identifies him- or herself as a talent rather than as having a talent for something that they can voluntarily choose to use or not. If you identify yourself too much with being a talent rather than having talent for something, you leave less room for error, experimentation and learning along the way. You risk focusing too much on doing the “right” thing, i.e. what’s safe and what’s expected of you, which can be in contrast to others’ expectations about creating something new and valuable for the business that challenges more established ideas and ways of doing things. The challenges people face, are translated into obligations and burdens instead of opportunities and learning. We risk wanting to appear “right” and to do the right thing rather than doing more of what we are naturally are good at. The result is that we don’t develop more talent, but instead get less than we hoped for. We don’t make the talented people brave, we make them more uncertain of themselves and don’t make the most of what they actually do better and more easily than others.

Don’t try to change people

Development is not about changing people. On the contrary, it’s about helping them to be brave enough to bring even more of themselves into play. To be themselves and add the insights and abilities needed to fulfill whatever aspiration and goals we have for the future. It is about giving people the courage to be themselves, even when it means that what they do is not always 100% consistent with the company’s well-defined way of working and behaviors. If everyone has to do what’s in the company’s manuals, then there is no need to work with talent. Then instead, you are in the business of making copies who have to fit into a common middle- of-the-road mentality where no one stands out and everyone is stuck in fixed ways of behaving and producing results. That’s not a viable path for any company that want to be relevant for humans.

Talent is characterized precisely by standing out. To do what most of us find difficult to do, but in an easier and more valuable way. To make room for that, the focus should be less at the people who are considered to have these talents and more at the company and its leaders’ abilities to create space for variety and diversity in terms of mindset, behavior, idea development and the actual creation of results. We should be very specific in the agreement with our leaders that it’s not about changing people but instead trying to decode and expand even more of their natural talents for the benefit of the company, for people around them and of course for the individuals themselves. We should have less ambitions on behalf of other people and instead listen to what they themselves are motivated by and are committed to that adds value to the purpose and strategy of the company.

Talent is something you do

Another place to make an effort is in relation to the very concept of talent. There’s a lot to gain from thinking less about talent as something you are, and more into something that you do. In other words, that talent is not completely the same thing as identity, but is instead a set of abilities, skills, mentalities and behaviors that create significant and useful value. If we buy into that premise, then all people have the opportunity to either use his or her talent – or not. They have the power to bring it into play (or not), and the company and the leaders in the company have a duty to create the environment in which it’s attractive, trusting and safe to do so. The company and the leaders of the company must work to deserve the talents being put into play, instead of the talents having to be tested and required to show how good they are. To do that, it’s necessary to balance the focus on learning and iterative processes with performance and results. If we are not consistently walking on both these legs at the same time, it is difficult to develop talent in a strategic and truly impactful way.

All companies are trying to create value for customers and hopefully the world and have systems and processes to support this. This is important and necessary, but it doesn’t always create the best framework for the development of more talent. We also need an environment, systems and processes that support experimentation, learning and innovation, where the goal is not to confirm what we can already do but also develop the new and relevant impact for the future. In other words, we have to create a very trusting environment with space for learning and development that can subsequently become a more close-knit practice that creates results and development hand-in-hand.

Do we want people or robots?

Talent doesn’t define people but is instead something they are capable of more easily and with greater value than most. Therefore, we should be careful reducing our idea of what talent is as an ideal image that doesn’t allow room for the less talented elements, we all also have. We have to make room for people to bring all of themselves to work and not just the talented parts.

As a company, we could also consider whether we really think it’s important to be authentic? There is a growing tendency for companies to communicate how important it is to be authentic, which can often be challenging when faced with the reality of that same statement. One of the challenges is that businesses are put under pressure when a leader or employee acts authentically in ways the company doesn’t like. This doesn’t make it any less authentic – on the contrary – but just not in a way that’s appreciated by the company. The only conclusion must then be that you don’t fully believe that people should be authentic, because there is a clear inconsistency between what’s being said and what’s being done.

Instead, the company is welcoming people to be authentic as long as it fits into the company’s valued ways of acting, which can be said to be almost meaningless. Either we believe that people should be the people they are, or we think they should do what’s expected of them. It is clear that it’s not sustainable if everyone behaves as if they were at a rave, but it must also be equally clear that the way to build more talent is probably not to turn it into a standard product or to tie it down with strict procedures that don’t leave room for development, innovation or surprises.

We have to make room for people to bring all of themselves to work and not just the talented parts.

Where do we begin?

  • Lower the expectations that people have to perform in a certain way or fit into narrow frameworks. Instead, make space for new ways of creating value, and help them create connections between what they are driven by and are good at and the things the company values and needs in order to develop even more. It is in these transitions that extra value can be found for both the company and its leaders and employees.


  • Help leaders and employees to understand and get through the necessary phases of uncertainty, resistance and challenges described in this article, because they important and relevant to go through as a part of shaping them and moving them forward. It’s not about completely getting rid of the insecurity and resistance, but about finding a path that is appropriately challenging without trapping people with the wrong ideas or view of themselves in the company.


  • Be very aware of the language used about talent. Note how often people are called talents rather than having talent for something and help to change this into a mindset and practice that gives the opportunity for more people to put their talents into play rather than reducing people’s desire to use them or not valuing how unique and great they are.


  • Help leaders to have focused discussions about talent with their employees, balancing what the company wants to achieve and what the individual wants to achieve. Help leaders recognizing their employees as having talent for something rather than being, and what they can do or have the potential to do that is seen as talented, useful and engaging, inspired by the purpose and strategy of the company

Download article as PDF

Back to Insights