1998 - Nurture v nature
Talent does not
exist. It is a myth which should be demolished,
a study said last week. The research, led by Michael
Howe, professor of psychology at Exeter University,
would appear to have important implications for
recruitment and the development of individuals
in the workplace.
The study challenges some enduring
tenets underpinning most western educational systems,
and the comparatively new ideas on evolutionary
psychology that human behaviour is embedded in
Only last month in the Harvard
Business Review Nigel Nicholson, professor of
organisational behaviour at London Business School,
argued that people were predisposed to adopt certain
behaviour ingrained during the stone age.
By this argument the removal
of designated parking spaces and corner offices
for executives, he suggests, is a waste of energy
because it is natural, for men in particular,
to seek out status and to establish hierarchy.
The office, it seems, can be as symbolic of executive
power as the throne is of kingship.
Prof Nicholson comes from a long
line of behavioural geneticists who have tended
to hold the whip hand in the development of selection
processes for most of this century. He asserts
that "there is little point in trying to
change deep-rooted inclinations". Thus, with
regard to leadership he concludes that "the
most important attribute for leadership is the
desire to lead".
This may hold true for the leader
but does it hold for those who are led? It could
be argued that the self-driven cult of the leader
has been at the root of the 20th century's most
destructive episodes. Is it wise for any organisation,
be it corporate or governmental, to allow the
natural emergence of leaders? Should not leadership
, like any other executive function, be determined
by the demands of the office?
The belief in predisposed behaviours
does seem compelling, particularly when Prof Nicholson
points out that any parent of several children
is aware of the differing personalities among
their brood. But how can it be squared with the
theories of those, like Prof Howe, who argue that
excellence is not inborn but determined by a variety
of factors such as opportunity, encouragement
and endless practice?
The Exeter research noted that
the ability of violinists, for example, tended
to depend on practice. Equally, practice appeared
to ensure that waitresses could remember far more
drinks orders than a control group of students.
It was wrong to assume, therefore, said the report's
authors, that a person needed talent to reach
high levels of ability.
It seems a shame that academics
should adopt such polarised views but after listening
to a talk by Edward de Bono given to the Academy
for Chief Executives in London last week it is
no longer surprising. Mr De Bono suggested that
sometimes people can know too much. "A lot
of people with high IQs get stuck in the intelligence
trap," he said.
"They have a point of view
and the more intelligent they are the better they
are likely to be at defending their argument.
Many excellent minds are trapped in poor ideas.
That is not excellent thinking."
This could be one of the problems
of the nurture versus nature debate. If one side
were to suggest that the search for talent can
be misplaced it might find many more in agreement.
In the same way personality traits could be accepted
more readily if there was greater acceptance among
those attracted to the idea of genetically inspired
behaviour that people can also be moulded by their
What is the point of intelligence,
after all, if it supports a conviction that turns
out to be wrong? Wasn't it Keynes who admitted:
"When the facts change I change my mind.
What do you do sir?"
© 1998 Financial Times Ltd.
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