Have you ever compared your work performance to a colleague's? It's a daily habit for most of us, and can often have a positive impact.
It could be a source of motivation: "Did Tom just receive a promotion? Perhaps if I work a bit harder, I'll be next!" It could also provide you with a sense of reassurance: "Most of my team members just received a ton of criticism, but my bosses had nothing negative to say about me. I must be doing really well!"
Comparing your performance to that of your colleagues, however, can become a detriment when your performance pales in comparison to that of your peers: "I have been working at this company far longer than Sara, but for some reason she received her second raise and I haven't even had one."
Would it be better for your boss to tell you why Sara got another raise and you are still waiting for your first? Or would it be better for your supervisor to keep the situation a secret?
We examined the impact of interpersonal comparisons within an organisation that uses talent management.
Talent management is a common practice within organisations. It involves the identification of key positions that contribute to the organisation's sustainable competitive advantage. The aim of talent management is to fill these key positions with the most high-performing and high-potential employees.
Considering the competitive climate of organisations, under which organisations frequently succumb and go bankrupt, it should not be surprising that roughly 65 per cent of companies worldwide have a talent management program in place.
Typically, these programmes include one to 10 per cent of the company's employees, who receive extra training and responsibilities, thereby ensuring that the organisation stays innovative, profitable, and in the end, survives.
Secrecy or transparency?
But this separation between "talent" and "non-talent" staff raises a lot of controversy.
Managers are increasingly concerned about providing equal opportunities to all employees, and fear the negative reactions from those that may be left out of these "elitist" talent programmes.
In our research, which includes conversations with talent managers, we have observed that to manage this conflict, supervisors either opt for larger talent pools or keep their talent management practices a secret.
In line with the first approach, many talent managers increase the number of employees identified as "talent" to minimise potentially negative reactions from employees who are actually part of the "non-talent" group. Some talent managers take a different approach and opt to keep their talent practices a complete secret.
Yet, while secrecy would allow companies to make "unpopular" decisions and avoid potentially negative reactions from employees, transparency is always portrayed as the more desirable communication strategy.
After all, many researchers have found that a lack of transparency is associated with feelings of nepotism, unjustified business practices and a general lack of trust in management and the organisation.
Without engaging in a politico-ethical debate as to whether secrecy regarding talent management is justifiable or not, we asked the question: What is the actual impact of being aware or unaware of one's own talent status?
Feelings of envy can slow us down
Our research revealed that employees are more likely to develop feelings like envy and reduced self-esteem when they were not selected to be part of the 30 per cent top performers in comparison to when they were excluded from the top one per cent top performers in their organisation.
A likely explanation is that individuals subconsciously utilize various self-defence mechanisms when confronted with peers that outperform them.
More specifically, for very exclusive talent management programs — those programs where the likelihood to be identified as talent is below the five per cent level —employees can more easily convince themselves that one must be an exceptional "genius" in order to be eligible for such a programme.
It should come as no surprise that nearly everyone can accept not being a "genius" as long as they believe that their performance is above average.
We also found that feelings of envy were at their absolute lowest and feelings of self-esteem were at their highest when employees were aware of the existence of a talent management program as well as the percentage of employees included in such a program, but they didn't know whether they were identified as being part of the talent pool themselves.
In other words, ignorance seems to be bliss when it comes to knowing about one's talent status.
When we combined our findings about the benefits of not knowing whether employees are identified as talent with people's strong desire for transparency, we reached a conundrum.
Complicating things even further, our research also indicated that nearly 80 per cent of employees had a very high desire to be considered a talent. This is despite the fact that talent management typically caters to the top 10 per cent, if not less. This provides us with another challenge: How can you openly communicate who is a talent without negatively affecting the "non-talents"?
Make everyone believe they are a talent
Even though it is considered somewhat controversial to do so, we recommend that organisations keep a lid on their talent management practices.
Employees systematically overestimate their own competencies and performance. Making employees aware of their actual (low) performance can result in them retaliating, which will ultimately be harmful to both the company and the employee.
Instead, we suggest organisations openly communicate about the existence of a talent management program. They can share the percentage of employees considered to be part of the talent pool, without specifying whether individual employees have acquired "talent status."
Furthermore, previous studies have found that people who believe that they are identified as a talent perform more admirably at their work to prove they are worthy.
We also know that a majority of employees misidentify themselves as a talent within organisations in which talent management practices are kept a secret.
In essence, this implies that a majority of the employees might increase their work efforts when their organisation introduces a talent management program where the acquired status remains a secret.
By now some of you, if not all of you, may be thinking: "Isn't it callous or even inhumane to leave people in the dark like this?"
But what harm is truly done? If telling the truth hurts so much that it reduces people's feelings of self-esteem, aren't we then preserving their well-being and motivation to come to work by keeping some things a secret from them?
And at the same time, organisations can still benefit from all the perks that talent management provides. Without effective talent management, companies hardly stand a fight chance against their competitors, leaving its employees without an income. That is not a more favourable situation either.
We ask you to consider the following: When you are confronted with a peer struggling in some activity, do you tell them they are simply not good enough, or do you tell them a "white lie" to make them feel better?
We all know that confronting people with their (current) lack of competence may result in them losing hope and giving up. Yet with the help of a little encouragement, people will likely continue to invest energy in order to improve.
Through secrecy, the "non-talents" will have a higher level of motivation than they would if they were fully informed. This ignorance actually makes it more likely that they will become more competent over time, and eventually end up being identified as actual talents.
It's a clear win-win situation.
This article was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished with permission. Anand van Zelderen is a PHD researcher in work and organisational studies at Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven, while Yannkick Grie is an assistant professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Calgary.