I have written often about the work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues that argues it is better to think about achievement in an area as a skill to be acquired rather than as a talent. Ultimately, excellence in any area requires a lot of effort. The more that you believe that achievement requires hard work, the more willing you are to put in that work.
In addition, most successful people are quick to acknowledge the effort it took to be so successful. In his prime, Tiger Woods was proud that he was the first player on the practice green in the morning and the last one there at the end of the day. Stephen King talks about the schedule he keeps in order to write so many books.
But, when we look at other people’s behavior, we don’t often see that hard work. Watching a virtuoso musician on stage, we marvel at the performance, but we don’t think about how much practice went into that achievement. Great athletes are often so smooth that it appears that their abilities are a gift.
A paper in the January, 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Chia-Jung Tsay suggests that we fail to appreciate the value of the effort people put in. Indeed, we may actually prefer people we see as having natural abilities to those who we perceive as being hard workers.
To test this prospect, Tsay looked at the evaluation of entrepreneurs. This domain was selected, because most people believe that being successful in creating a new business requires a lot of effort. So, this arena should bias people toward thinking that hard work matters.
In one study, participants evaluated an individual and that person’s business plan. Some participants had relatively little business expertise, while others were experts who had been involved in the creation of companies. One group was given information suggesting that the person seemed to be a natural at business. A second group was given information suggesting that the person had to work hard in order to succeed.
The business novices were not affected much by the manipulation of belief in effort. However, the experts were much more interested in hiring the person seen as having natural business talent and felt that person would be more likely to succeed in creating a business.
A second study used a method called conjoint analysis to explore the same question. In conjoint analysis, participants evaluate pairs of individuals who differ in a set of characteristics. Across the study, different combinations of characteristics are tested in order to understand which factors are most important for decisions. This study looked at whether someone was perceived as a natural or a hard worker as well as their amount of leadership experience, management expertise, their IQ, and the amount of venture capital they had raised in the past.
For both business novices and business experts, all of these factors mattered. Objective factors like experience and expertise affected people’s judgments. In addition, there was a reliable effect of perceiving someone as a natural. Both the novices and the experts would rather work with someone they see as having a natural talent for business than for those who they see as working hard to get where they are.
There are several things to take away from this research.
First, if you are in a position to evaluate others, you should be aware that you will be biased toward those people you see as being naturally gifted despite the importance of hard work in almost every environment. You know that your own hard work has been important in your success, and so you should value that work in others.
At the same time, you should be aware that other people will be evaluating you based on whether they think you have natural talent for the areas in which you excel. Thus, no matter how hard you work, you may want to act as though your performance is the obvious result of your talent. The best way to do that is to act as though you are not struggling as you do your work. Even though that absence of struggle is the result of all of the practice you have done in the past, that work does not need to be evident right now.
Finally, remember that when you reach a position of leadership, you also need to encourage other people to work hard. Chances are, people will see a lot of your current level of performance as the result of some natural talent. When you mentor other people, you need to let them know the amount of work that went into getting you where you are now. They should not be fooled into thinking that only those who actually have natural talent succeed, regardless of appearances.
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