spikes and HR errors

Gurnek Bains et al’s excellent book Meaning Inc. is worth a read if you are interested in trends in business. Based on over 20,000 interviews with business leaders around the world, it builds a case for a particular style of business from the individual up. By this I mean that rather than looking at successful companies and drawing generalised conclusions about ‘what works’, the authors starting point is people’s views on what is not working and what is. I resonate with the approach, and there are many similarities with Ergo’s own Generative Business framework. (The Generative Assessment Survey is our diagnostic.)

One of the ideas that I have both advocated for, and also have been guilty of perpetuating the antithesis of, is what the authors call ‘spikes’. Put simply (in my language); high achieving individuals tend to be unbalanced. Bains et al met with as many exceptional performers as they could. They observed that a large percentage of them were ‘odd’, even eccentric, rather than balanced and reasonable. In Jungian terms, I would describe this as the shadow side of people’s strengths. It is a corollary of extreme strength, that there are corresponding downsides.

The classic HR error is to focus effort on developing people in the area of weakness. The idea of ‘spikes’ is to amplify organisational effectiveness by stoking up the fire under people’s strengths … release them to be exceptionally good at their natural competencies.

One of the drivers for this HR response is the way colleagues report frustration at working with high achievers. They are too introverted, random, unpredictable, obsessive, intolerant, etc  etc.

Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest some effort at mitigating the collateral damage that can result from the dysfunctionality associated with the ‘shadow side’. It is also not the point that bad behaviour should be excused. But the point is that the most leverage will come from accentuating natural strengths rather than elevating competency in an area of natural weakness.

Now note that we are particularly talking about high achievers here. It is a fair enough question to ask why we should give grace to the so called stars, and be less tolerant of natural weaknesses in the bulk of us. It seems to me that we could take Bains’ view further and apply a similar approach everyone. After all, surely the outcome we are looking for is for everyone to contribute from their strengths.

Line managers are best placed to work with their teams to mitigate against the implications of shadow sides. (When Barry Hall gets himself rubbed out for biffing opponents it does help the team cause.) Perhaps those of us working in people development need to spend more time urging people to follow their natural inclinations, rather than assessing weakness and burning HR budgets creating balance, which can often result in mediocrity – rather than performance spikes.