READ the September 2021 issue of our magazine: The Great War For Talent
Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in people analytics, talent management, leadership development, and the Human-AI interface. He is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, Co-founder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, and Professor of Business Psychology at both University College London, and Columbia University. He has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics and lectured at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, Johns Hopkins, IMD, and INSEAD, as well as being the CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems.
In an exclusive interaction with us, Dr Tomas throws light on the big differentiators for companies to win the talent war in the face of the great resignation.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
Four million people left the US workplace in April 2021, which some economists have dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’. How do you see this never-before trend?
Mostly, as the delayed accumulated effects of nearly no movements during the previous 12-months. So, some of this is structural or temporal, like the economic rebound that follows any crisis, or any compensatory phases in a cycle that has been slowed down or postponed. You can see it as social thermodynamics or physics, in the sense that whenever pressure builds up, or some force is contained, it will come out or be liberated more potently when the barriers are moved. That said, we should also acknowledge that for many people the crises will have provided an opportunity to reassess, rethink, and make bolder decisions vis-à-vis their careers and lives. When we are pushed out of our comfort zone and our version of normality is disrupted, we have the conditions for courageous changes to emerge. Finally, I think a lot of people have learned a great deal about their priorities, their employers, and what they really want and need in life post-pandemic. While the pandemic is not over yet, they are moving fast because they developed the impulse or impetus to change as they see the world changing.
The larger employment landscape is flickering at warp speed with organisations vying for the best talent after the great layoffs of millions of workers in the early days of the crisis. What could be the big differentiators for companies to win the talent war?
During the first and second wave of this pandemic, the emphasis was on showcasing empathy and looking after people’s wellbeing. To get people’s trust and keep them sane and healthy you needed to show them that you cared about them as human beings rather than productivity machines. Now we are seeing a new chapter in the war for talent which is intensifying the need to offer flexibility, meaning, and even moral validation for employers. Basically, even if you are a top firm with great innovation and success, or a desirable brand, you will still need to deliver on the expectations people have regarding working from anywhere, helping to make the world a better place, and not just applying but also growing their talent and potential. And these expectations have risen. Since the pandemic has shown a K-shape recovery, with the war for talent intensifying for those who were already in-demand and hyper-skilled in the knowledge economy, now this segment of the job market is demanding more privileges, as well as ethics – shown in the rise of ESG – in order to commit to hard work and bring their talents to a potential employer.
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With the current crisis reinforcing the value of human capital, how can HR and talent leaders up their game to help companies head off the exodus of talent? Can you share some insights for HR leaders?
HR can capitalize on this crisis because it has the expertise and tools and data to help leaders make their organisations a better place to work. We saw it last year, when legal and health questions were the priority concern for most companies, and when every organisation had to learn how to adapt to a new reality, primarily in their management of people. I think human resources was elevated to humane resources, and this should not go away. Going forward we can expect even more blurred boundaries between people’s work and personal lives, and in uncertain times people will look to their employers for guidance on how to adapt to the world, which goes beyond simple job or career matters. But fundamentally, employees will evaluate very carefully how their employers treat people, how they behave in difficult circumstances, and whether they truly care about them as humans. All the talent and productivity stuff is there, it will always be there, but we cannot make it a priority while there is so much suffering and anxiety in the world. In essence, organisations will realize that it is often harder to be kind than smart, but that the premium and competitive advantage in the war for talent will increasingly shift towards kindness, empathy, consideration – smart is a hygiene factor, kindness is the true virtue. There has never been the worst time to be greedy or fail to keep our pathological ambition in check.
Do you think large organisations are utilizing this moment to fix broken links and create more sustainable work environments, increase employee retention, build loyal customer base, and move toward a fairer and healthier post-COVID-19 world?
The best organisations will. In fact, they have the advantage that they had been working on this before the crisis, even when they didn’t have external pressures to do so. I think courage is always about making decisions you don’t really have to make, at least for practical reasons, and even making decisions that will be impractical or counterproductively to you in the short term. Courage implies risk, which is why people are already skeptical of employers who are catching up on these employee-centered or “people first” measures simply because of external pressures. It is moral for us humans to demand not just the good deed, but also the good deed driven by genuinely good motives. If there is a clear business case to ESG, then that’s great because more employers will engage in benevolent and prosocial behaviors – and good for people to push them, in a grassroots society way, in this direction. That said, unless we can be convinced that organisations truly want to drive positive changes, and are really able to make certain sacrifices to commit to the welfare of others, these efforts will backfire – and rightly so.
Can technology and digital innovations help organisations and their people leaders manage talent better during this time with uncertainty still abound?
Within HR or human capital, technology is a fundamental tool to capture data. And we also have the human skills (and AI) to translate that data into meaningful and important insights, including insights that can help us make the world of work more talent-centric, meritocratic, and fair. But not every organisation, not every leader, manager, employee, is willing to act on those insights, especially when they challenge their own instincts and intuition. Technology is a commodity, data is becoming commoditized, and the insights are getting easier and cheaper to buy: but the humility, curiosity, and vision to fundamentally change the way you operate and make decisions in order to be evidence-based, is still the exception rather than the norm, and a rare skill found only in the best leaders and organisations. We are only in the beginning of this era but I am a firm believer that we can, will, and should use AI to expose and overcome human biases and mitigate the toxic influence of nepotism, elitism, and politics in organisations and society. Part of the resistance against AI is coming from the status quo, the very people who have little to gain from being exposed as powerful but incompetent, and whose success is down to privilege rather than talent.
Can corporations leapfrog legacy practices and build new approaches that enable highly qualiﬁed women to succeed in these dynamic markets?
Humans are the most adaptable and versatile species on the planet, at least according to humans. In seriousness, we have the ability to change dramatically, even while our biological configuration and instincts remain the same. Radical changes are always influenced by culture – the formal and informal rules of interaction that reward certain behaviors and sanction others. And finally, culture does not come out of the blue, it is the product of the values and behaviors of leaders. Leadership is always a force for change, and good leadership is a fundamental force for progress. This always happens through teams, large groups, and institutions, which are embedded in the grammar and syntax of old cultures and traditions. This is why, as my colleague Gianpiero Petriglieri at INSEAD says, leadership is an argument with tradition, with the past. What we will see in the next few years is what we have seen in the past, namely some leaders standing out for their ability to reshape the dynamics of work and improve things for their organisations, and society. And the others, well, they will try to resist but risk becoming defunct or obsolete in the process. Even the Vatican has decided to reform and went for a disruptive leader. If the Catholic Church can do it, so can an 80-year old for-profit corporation – they for sure have more pressure and fewer barriers to achieving this.
Creating a work culture built on trust, transparency, and empathy is what makes employees feel safe to show up as their authentic selves. In the hybrid world, how can we create that culture with a distributed workforce?
I don’t know what people mean when they talk about their authentic selves, but perhaps this is my own fault or bias after spending many years of training in psychoanalysis. What I do know is that work will always require us to bring the best version of our professional personas, make an effort to adjust to the dominant social norms and etiquette, and pay a great deal of attention to how we manage our reputation. This does not need to go away, and we can still unleash our uncensored and unfiltered selves during family reunions or vacations, ideally far away from our bosses, colleagues, and bosses. That said, it is also true that very few people would like to work – or spend 1/3 of their adult lives – somewhere where the culture is in stark contrast with their values, or where they are forced to act in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs, or where their professional work persona is someone they have little spiritual or moral connection with. The hybrid issue is more complex, because fairness is always harder to ensure when everyone is in a different situation, and location, and we have uneven information of what people are doing. But the opportunity to give people more freedom, flexibility, to trust them and learn to evaluate what they actually produce and deliver, that is a golden opportunity not just for HR, but for organisations and society.