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Natural talent vs. trying hard. Which do organisations prefer?


There are motivational quotes adorning the walls of many an office extolling the virtue of making the effort and working hard. Whether you think of the example of the Everest-conquering climber, the marathon-winning athlete, or the footballer who reaches the top through practice and dedication; perseverance and focus are often put forward as key ingredients for a successful person.


For business professionals, this is an encouraging thought – work hard, gain skills, focus on your career, then move up the ladder and reach your goals. It means success is a product of determination as much as it is raw ability, making it perhaps more straightforward to plot a career path that is only hampered by an individual’s own faltering commitment.


Such a positive message might, however, be slightly dampened by a much-discussed recent study by Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London. Its title – “Privileging Naturals Over Strivers” – might give some clue as to why. What the researcher found was that people in her study were likely to favour those entrepreneurs perceived to have natural talent and ability over those seen as driven and hard-working. Indeed, through the series of experiments – which centred around the idea of which entrepreneurs would receive “investment” – there was a weighty preference for those candidates who had been established to have natural business ability. This was in spite of a commonly stated preference prior to the study for people who worked hard.


One explanation might be that people perceive greater potential in those who have natural ability, even at the expense of hard-working alternatives who possess greater experience and qualifications for a particular role. They may also view their talent as more “authentic” and “real” when compared with those who have worked hard to establish themselves in a field, while also simply being more impressed by innate ability.


Perhaps this study, in simply raising awareness of this potential bias, can help support recruiting managers to make better selection decisions in the future – focusing more on the competencies and achievements they are looking for in a candidate, rather than simply being overwhelmed by the natural ability of some.
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