Thursday 7 July 2016 3:41 am

Our in-built biases mean we'll dismiss the better hire just because someone else seems naturally gifted

Our society has long held a fascination for people we perceive to be naturally talented. From child prodigies to gifted performers, we see them as wonders of nature, imbued with enviable, raw talent. And while we also love an “overcoming adversity” storyline – people who overcome challenges through hard work and dedication – how do our perceptions of “raw talents” against “hard workers” compare? And what do they mean for the workplace?

Star hires

The way human nature and biases impact business decision-making has been explored for decades, with numerous recent studies looking at this fascination for natural ability, and how our perception of raw talent affects hiring and the handing out of promotions.

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Beliefs about where talent comes from can shape our perceptions in any context, from the arts to sports to business. In the music industry, for instance, professional musicians will often downplay the amount they practise, just to enhance the idea that they are naturally gifted.

This can be seen in a wide range of arenas, given the allure of natural beauty, natural intelligence, or natural athleticism, compared to the “striver” versions – that is, the same achievements obtained through sheer hard work and motivation.

In-built bias

In a recent study, I set out to explore how perceptions of “natural talent” impact decision-making in the business world. What power does “natural talent” hold for entrepreneurs, and at what cost will we opt for a raw talent over a more experienced candidate?

I found that, despite being presented with entrepreneurs equal in achievement, and despite being presented with identical business proposals, people still thought the “natural” entrepreneur was more accomplished, and were more likely to invest in that business proposal.

Both experienced entrepreneurs and novices alike judged the “natural” to be superior to the “striver” in terms of both talent and success.

In fact, we are quite willing to give up better-qualified people in order to hire those believed to be naturals. When you start to quantify the extent of this preference, the results are striking: the business experts in the study were willing to give up 4.52 years of leadership experience, 8.95 per cent in management skills, 28.30 points in IQ, and $39,143 in accrued capital to invest in an entrepreneur who was identified as a natural.

Wood through the trees

So what can we learn from this? Investors risk overlooking highly qualified entrepreneurs who possess various valued achievements, in favour of apparent “naturals” who may actually be weaker in important performance areas. People are likely unaware that their choices are powerfully influenced by such biases.

This bias becomes even more costly for investors when we consider the evidence suggesting that actual achievement is frequently a result of strenuous effort.

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By recognising our implicit preference for naturals, we can become better equipped to identify and hire the people who actually possess the achievements we value and who are more likely to help us attain greater success.

Entrepreneurs who have worked tirelessly to develop their business will understandably want to demonstrate the extent of their hard work when pitching for clients or investment. But as this research shows, it can be beneficial to let some natural flair shine through at the same time – and we should remember to also focus on areas where our inborn talents have contributed to business success.