Is it better to be gifted or a hard worker?

Posted on April 12th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Imagine for a moment that you’re a manager looking to hire a sales person to join your team. You interview lots of candidates and think you have narrowed it down to two strong candidates with very similar skills and experience.

You can only spot one real difference between the two. One of the candidates Amelia says that she has always been fairly strong at selling. From an early age, she remembers always having had the gift of being able to chat to people and persuade them to do what she wanted. “I’m just a natural people person and sales person,” she says.

In your view, the other candidate Joanna has equally developed sales skills. However, she says that it’s a set of skills that she has worked hard to develop. “It’s not something that comes naturally. But I’ve worked hard at it to get to where I am today,” she tells you.

Which candidate would you hire? Amelia, the natural or Joanna the striver?

A research study by Harvard University psychologists Chia-Jung Tsay and Mahzarin Banaji found that experts mainly argued that strivers should achieve more over people who were naturally talented.  That would suggest that Joanna – who has worked to develop her sales skills – should be the candidate to choose.  After all, wouldn’t you want someone who can achieve the most?

However, when the experts were asked who was more hirable, they actually reversed their thinking: they chose the person with natural talent. In spite of the fact that the experts said that the hard worker should achieve more, they actually picked the naturally talented person. Writing in the Journal of Experimental social Psychology, the researchers reported that the experts “judged the natural performer to be more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hirable that the striver.”

The researchers claim that many experts experience a “naturalness bias” – that they prefer people who are naturally gifted and talented rather than people who have worked hard to hone their skills.

The researchers suggest that there’s a belief in many experts that extraordinary performance only comes about through innate talent rather than hard work. Or perhaps experts feel that in-born skills are less affected by circumstances than skills developed through discipline and practice.

So what’s the lesson for all of us? Whenever you are trying to make an impact – perhaps you want a boss to notice your skills or a potential employer to offer you a job – it would be better to emphasise the naturalness of your skills than the hard work you put into developing them. So that means highlighting your longstanding preferences and natural tendencies; that means downplaying the struggles you’ve had and the graft you put in. Or, if you genuinely feel that you have worked super-hard to develop your skills, at least keep that fact to yourself.

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