Is it time to rethink what we value – and reward – at work?

Bianca Healey


written on May 11, 2017

Our systems are set up to value certain qualities over others. The problem with blanket definitions is they neglect to recognise complexities in aptitude for a job. In the digital economy, how can we re-frame our thinking about how we assess performance?

Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable about the hare and tortoise.

The hare is a classic “type A” animal (and maybe a bit of a bully?); it gets a lot of enjoyment out of laughing at the slow tortoise.

Eventually, the tortoise challenges the hare to a race to prove it too, is going places.

The hare agrees, sets off and quickly shoots ahead. Miles ahead of the tortoise, the hare smugly settles down beside the course and rewards itself with a nap.

Long story short; the hare (who awakes in a panic and realises it neglected to set an alarm) gets up just in time to see the tortoise ambling across the finish line.

The moral of the story: ‘Slow and steady wins the race’. Or, perseverance and grit win out over swiftness and impulsiveness in the end.

Except at work, this doesn’t always hold true, does it?

Almost all of our metrics and measurements in the workplace are set up to give the highest score to the hare, with its rapid Energiser bunny response rate – whether it’s for an email or a client report.

As for the tortoise?

Well, sometimes we just wish it would hurry up.

Why it’s time to give the tortoises their due

These are some of the ideas that writer Malcolm Gladwell asks us to think about – and question – in a keynote address he gave at the Wharton School’s People Analytics Conference.

During the speech, he gives the example of his co-worker at the New Yorker magazine, Sheelah Kolhatkar, whose previous career was as a hedge fund analyst on Wall Street.

There, he said, Kolhatkar felt extremely uncomfortable. Where she noticed that “the best traders were those with a huge tolerance for risk, who were cool and dispassionate under pressure,” as a person for whom merely the thought of making a mistake could keep her up at night, she became “a basket case.”

However, as an investigative journalist, those traits which were not well-aligned with her previous role have allowed her to thrive – and produce exceptional, award-winning work.

Kolhatkar is the type of worker, says Gladwell, who does a job as thoroughly and carefully as possible regardless of the clock ticking on the wall – and is even slightly neurotic – who can be highly valuable in a work environment.

However, being slow and neurotic is not generally valued either by human resource departments, or our educational system.

Instead, we generally want hares: people who work fast.

Gladwell asserts that neurotic tortoises are in fact “highly suited for the present workplace” in jobs that require mastering complex problems, being thorough and not making mistakes. Why then, he asked, do we design selection and evaluation systems biased against them?

“We make life difficult for neurotic tortoises,” he says. And it’s because our systems, from timed exams to task-based projects, are geared to score hares higher, while neglecting to see the importance of the traits of the tortoise.

A new perspective on performance metrics

Dr Andy Walshe, head of High Performance at the Red Bull elite training labs spoke to the idea of value and work at a recent conference in Sydney.

As technology takes a greater role in the way we do our work, he said, those traits that are “most human”: emotional intelligence, collaboration, creativity will develop a greater importance and value in our workplaces.

And it’s on these skills, he says, that we should be focussing our coaching and training efforts.

Brian Kropp, executive director at CEB, agrees.

Where traditionally our work practices comprised the equivalent of “moving a pile of boulders from one side of the room to the other,” new modes of working cannot be measured according to these old, quantifiable methods that focused primarily on individual tasks.

Eventually, he suggests, a robot is going to be able to complete those menial tasks more efficiently and accurately than even your zippiest, most bright-eyed hare.

We need to ask ourselves “how do we not only reward the tasks employees are engaging in, but how to identify and reward the contributions that people are making to each other, how they work within that network and how they drive the network,” he says.

“The most innovative companies are focussing on that question: how do you work collectively with other people to get to a good outcome for the organisation – rather than how do you measure and evaluate people moving a pile of rocks from one place to another.”

Can’t we have both?: the speedy, accurate hare

Later on in his speech, Gladwell was joined onstage with Adam Grant, Wharton professor of management and psychology, who questioned some of his assertions.

In particular, he challenged the premise that most people are either thorough or speedy – but not both. “Could there just be really conscientious hares, who are fast, and who execute, and who are also careful?”

Gladwell conceded that there could be, but that expecting as such was akin to expecting every basketball player to be alike to Michael Jordan.

“I think if you want highly neurotic, highly conscientious people,” he says, “they’re going to be tortoises by and large.”

In summation, Gladwell compels human resources professionals to think deeply about what type of personality they should be looking for in particular jobs or professions, rather than lean on accepted notions of “valuable” traits.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to recruitment, where structured interview formats and psychometric testing may be rigged to score for certain traits over others. It’s here that Gladwell says HR professionals need to take steps to ensure they are using their tools correctly to find the best candidate.

“Analytics are of no value if you don’t have a conversation beforehand about why you want to use a particular analytic.”

AHRI members weigh in

AHRI member Tamar Balkin recently shared the Wharton School essay about Malcolm Gladwell’s speech to prompt discussion with AHRI members.

Let’s not underestimate the tortoise,” says Pam MacDonald, director at Broadspring Consulting.

“To me it is all about role fit and role clarity.”

HR should be “ensuring we hire the right person to suit the role and that the role has been described as it truly is,” she says. “Many roles need a tortoise and to place a hare in those roles creates significant problems in the immediate and surrounding areas.”

Anne Barclay, director at HR Advantage agrees, commenting: “great article highlighting (that) diverse talents are needed in most workplaces.”

What are your thoughts? Are our workplaces skewed to value some working traits over other?

Does this share similarities with our recent HRM magazine article about introverts in the workplace and how we tend to value leaders who make the most noise?

Please share your thoughts in the comments

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8 thoughts on “Is it time to rethink what we value – and reward – at work?

  1. Great article thank you. People with the innate temperament trait of High Sensitivity (scientific name Sensory Processing Sensitivity) are innately the tortoise. Thorough, empathic, deep processing style, analytical, able to see downstream impacts of upstream changes, and yes maybe considered by some as a little neurotic. Often overlooked and undervalued, even bullied in the workplace. Again, great article!

  2. Bianca you have answered the question in the title (and article) which is one eyed and might I say a little 70’s. Yes psychometric, qualities are important but in this day and age capacity to contribute in a defined position is measured by competency and when we get this right we can empower the employees to deliver what is expected. This is essential in the changing workforce, one that will be very different to traditional “joss” that a lot of us have been used to in the past.

    The establishment of teams or even organisations of clones will kill innovation and the world will pass Australia bye again like it did in 1980/90’s. HR is an asset that can be measured in a quantitative way and valued. An asset that will appreciate if we define right and empower it

  3. I still think we have a long way to go in realising that you need all different types of people to contribute in an organisation in order for it to be successful, in theory we do but I still see so many organisations hiring certain types – were on the journey but it’s still very evident to me that we have an overload of extroverts in leadership and with the move to more “agile” organisations I am seeing the tendency for “hares” to be favoured over tortoises.

    I think, like with many of our bias some of this is subconscious.

  4. Mostly I think we overrate accuracy. Experimentation and play are very important for learning and growth. There must be permission for this and reward whether you are fast or slow!!!

  5. Different jobs require different traits. I would want my accountant and my payroll managers to be tortoises. I probably want my sales force to be hares… I would value them equally but based on different priorities. Wick could equal mistake as the article implies, but perfection could equal paralysis as well. Balance is required. No one fit as we often say in HR.

  6. I can only assume Malcolm Gladwell has never had to employ scientists, engineers, medical professionals. researchers and/or analysts. My work in HR (and the work of most of my HR colleagues) has always included challenging stereotypes and doing all we can to ensure we have the right person (not just a glib stereotype of traits) for the job.

  7. Great article. Having just read the article in the Good Weekend magazine (May 13) called “The rise of the Machines” about how autopilot functions on flight QF72 nearly ended in an air disaster. The pilots (who need to be tortoises & hares) saved the day. However the message was in the age of increasing automation that computers, driverless cars etc are only as good as the humans that design & program them. I want tortoises to do this work – particularly if my life depends on it!

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