Why the rhetoric of ”we need the best people” is so counterproductive

It implies that we believe deeply in universal truths, for instance, that the best people are the best in every situation and organization. Or, that this ‘bestness’ could, somehow be measured scientifically. Clearly there are very talented people who do well in many fields, I do not deny that. Yet I am increasingly uncomfortable with this dominant rhetoric of talent management. (The least you could ask is, the best for whom and for what situation.)

Another huge problem with the notion of there being the best (and by definition, also the worst) and those with high potential is that it puts people into boxes and keeps them there. These labels tend to stick, as we have learned from early school systems. Children who were repeatedly told at school that they are stupid, as often the case until the 1960-70s, when more enlightened approaches were introduced, always remember that and often act accordingly. And what percentage of people can be counted to be the best? If we believe the Gauss curve, it is maybe 5 %. If only 5 % of all work force are high potentials, what will become of the rest 95%? How do we categorise them? Low potentials or no potentials perhaps, as this rhetoric implies?

In addition of this crude division of people into categories (or classes even), this hierarchical treat of people has other sad implications. First, it strengthens and sustains unhealthy competition at work places that often set people off against one another and forces them into endless bouts of competitive behaviour instead of collaborating with one another. It makes people develop skills to beat others, not skills to collaborate with another. Competitiveness has merits but such single-minded focus can be damaging, tiresome and lead to cynicism and arrogance. There are ample examples of such traits dominant across many organizations.

Another misleading promise of the slogan “we need the best people” is the underlying belief that bringing in absolutely the best people into our organization guarantees success. That is a naïve belief that shows lack of understanding of the basic principles of organizing and social systems. Bring in ten top violinists and you’ll get a massive cacophony, or invite ten star football players into a team who all want to score a goal but never serve as a team player. On a more business-related note, hire top ten professionals of a field and they may never proceed from the initial cockfight into anything valuable.

Build diverse combinations

I offer a suggestion that is less aggressive and very simple: we need to hire good people for our organization. It implies that good people come in abundance and in many forms. There are so many good people out there, let’s hire them, appreciate them and nurture them! Most people are good in something and most people can develop their skills in a nurturing environment.

I continue: we want to hire good people to work with other good people to create something valuable. The leading principle in recruiting should be how to find good people from different professional and personal backgrounds and then create interesting mixes with these good people – not how to find the “best people” and then just think that the rest will take care of itself. It won’t. Much more work should go into building these diverse combinations of people with a variety of skills than into desperately hunting for those elusive ‘best people’. Much more attention should be focused on helping different people blossom and become the best possible versions of themselves.

Make peace not war

Someone once said (I forgot who) that there is a war for talent. Well, who wants war? The use of war metaphors should not be taken lightly in my opinion. It may appear just a word or a metaphor, but it does imply a readiness to kill to save one’s own skin – even when we are talking about companies. Certainly we can look for more peaceful alternatives and words.

Niina Koivunen,
School of Management
University of Vaasa, Finland

The writer is Associate Professor
of Human Resources Management
and deeply interested in the
performative power of language.

P.S. You can probably guess by now that I find the rhetoric “we want to become the best company in the world” also counterproductive. And how “we already are the best company in the world” is the beginning of an end.


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Niina Koivunen

Niina Koivunen - Pop-up leadership