How Hidden Figures in your business could be costing

Jo Lee calls on a recent film to underline a talent problem.

My 16-year-old daughter and I watched the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ recently. For those who don’t know, it’s the story of scientists who worked for NASA in the 60s. These were experts – their knowledge, know-how and judgement were exceptional.

It was just what NASA needed at that moment. But they struggled to be heard, their obvious talent overlooked. Why? They were women, black women. Their voices were crowded out by white men. Thankfully, for the success and safety of the space programme, science won out over sexism and racism.

Talent hidden in plain sight

Of course, that was a set of special circumstances and that was then, and this is now. Nowadays, the ability to spot and develop talent is gender blind, race blind, class blind, isn’t it? I am not so sure. For example, despite a whole raft of initiatives and major societal shifts, a lot of businesses still look decidedly male at the more senior levels. 

There are very talented people in our business who are being concealed by over confident, but less able colleagues. And, frankly, it is women who lose out most.

As my ambitious daughter investigates the organisations she might choose to work with in the future, what impression is she left with as she researches the top teams, those who are deemed successful? If decision making is the key professional skill that predicts success, then perhaps men just make better commercial decisions than women?

Boys keep swinging

When testing her assessment, she discovered a remarkable pattern – there was one gender whose confidence regularly and predictably outstripped their competence. Take a wild guess which. 

So far, so predictable perhaps. But these super-confidents were also more likely to be regarded as amongst the business’s top talent. Only trouble is, on the evidence of the assessment, their judgement was often wildly awry. While confidence is a great quality, unjustified confidence is an accident waiting to happen.

But what of those whose competence was high but their confidence in their judgement was lower? There are very talented people in our business who are being concealed by over confident, but less able colleagues. And, frankly, it is women who lose out most. But by identifying them we can help develop the confidence they need to unlock their potential.

Favouring competence over confidence

The key is not only a respondent’s competence in giving an answer, but, crucially, the confidence they have in their answer. The aim is simple: identify those people who are very confident but whose low level of competence makes them a risk, identify those people whose competence matches or even outstrips their confidence.

I can’t claim that any diagnostic will identify another Katherine Johnson, who calculated the flight trajectories for space missions, but closer inspection can shine a light on a whole raft of talent you never knew you had.

We’ve already seen how female talent is often crowded out by more confident, vocal men. Imagine how NASA might have looked if they had implemented a process that gave a voice to all.


About the author

Jo Lee is a senior consultant in Kaplan’s Leadership & Professional Development practice.


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