Cannibalization of Talent
by Richard Sackett, Ph.D.,
I see increasing evidence of “cannibalization of talent”: employees being overloaded until their strengths break down or they are pushed beyond their areas of strength and expertise with no transition support, setting them up for failure. By putting people in a position where they can’t deliver on their potential, companies are eroding their best resources.
Cannibalization occurs when staffing decisions are based on immediate needs rather than an ongoing talent-management program and has negative implications for retention, productivity, and morale. It takes on a variety of forms, including the
- A high-potential employee, qualified and hired for a
specific job, finds herself doing a different or bigger job
within a relatively short time.
- An employee is given a leap of scope without a proper
skill assessment to ensure a good match and without
transition coaching to bridge the skills gap.
- A company incrementally adds to an employee’s responsibilities
until he is essentially doing a new job. Because there is no defined transition, there is no recognized need for support.
- Instead of filling a vacant position, the organization expects
one or more employees to take up the slack.
DERAILING HIGH ACHIEVERS
Not surprisingly, companies tend to cannibalize high achievers. When you fail to support and grow them, finding ways to maximize their effectiveness and contribution to the organization, you abuse their potential. Overtaxed and not used to floundering, they think they must not be doing something right or working hard enough. So they push themselves until they are internally stressed, unbalanced, or compromised.
Employees who are taken out of their areas of strength – for example, asking someone terrific in a creative role to start managing an account and interfacing with clients – without the right kind of support, check-ins, and developmental milestones might feel marooned and demoralized.
When I’m brought in to coach an individual who has experienced difficulties as a result of being overstretched, there’s usually tremendous relief from the outset because the coachee can safely unload and gain perspective. I help that person assess the situation objectively, self-evaluate, gain insight into potential derailers, and form a realistic plan for addressing the new responsibilities. The plan almost always involves improving upward and downward management and communication. Coaching helps provide a stronger platform from which the individual can make constructive recommendations and requests to improve the situation.
TRANSITION IN A VACUUM
In some cases, employees have given indications that they want to be stretched and even fast-tracked. When they find themselves working outside their areas of strength or beyond their abilities to multitask and manage, those employees tend to have trouble seeking help. By not offering transitional coaching, the organization is complicit in the employee’s overreaching.
I recently saw how this can be perpetuated. An executive who was herself cannibalized is now cannibalizing those who report to her. Understaffed and burdened with one poor performer, she has compensated by overburdening her more accomplished direct report. The loss to the organization is manifold. The development needs of the poor performer – or the need to restaff – are not receiving appropriate attention. And two high performers are in situations where it is virtually impossible for them to succeed, putting them at risk of leaving. When you don’t know how to change a bad situation, the impulse is to escape and make a new start.
It can be harder for people who have actively sought more responsibility to come to grips with the situation, evaluate themselves honestly, and recognize their derailers. Those who have been thrust into a new role can become so overwhelmed that they crave any assistance in evaluating potential solutions. Even if the fix is to move them back and bring someone in above them, they tend to be more accepting.
I was called in to coach an individual who had excelled as a project manager and whose duties were expanded to include goal and strategy setting for a bigger department. He was clearly underprepared and in over his head. Instead of delegating to his new direct reports, he micromanaged. Out of anxiety,
he avoided addressing strategic initiatives. The solution was relocation to a different branch in an enhanced lateral move from his previous position – a move that made more sense and was a win-win. The company kept a valuable employee, and the employee was able to save face and use his strengths while dealing with a new set of challenges in a new context.
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