Malcolm Gladwell on Hockey, HR, and Helping People Shine

May 17, 2022 Sarah Bloznalis

“A radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.”

Malcolm and Eric Unsurprisingly, this quote is authored by someone who has been challenging cultural norms and ideas for his entire life and has shared those thoughts with us for more than two decades. Today, Workhuman® Live attendees from around the world had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear these thoughts straight from the source.

As author, speaker, and visionary Malcolm Gladwell stepped on to the Workhuman Live mainstage, he wasted little time getting straight to the point: “We are stupid – as a species – when it comes to this very difficult question of trying to assess someone’s real value.”

This statement may seem a bit rash at first, but trust me, by the end of the hour the entire audience was on board (including myself). Keep reading and you’ll hop on board, too!

Why does it matter?

Malcolm’s third book, “Outliers,” brought to light a phenomenon called the “relative age effect,” originally discovered by Canadian psychologist, Roger Barnsley. Using Canadian hockey rosters as data, Barnsley found that children born early in the year perform better than children born later in the same age group. For example, 40% of all elite Canadian hockey players are born in the first four months of the year, 30% in the next two months, 20% in the next two, and only 10% from the later months in the year.

And while that’s an interesting phenomenon – you may still be wondering why Malcolm Gladwell came to Workhuman Live just to talk about junior hockey statistics. Stay with me.

What do Canadian hockey, human resources, and elementary school have in common?

Fifteen years later, the relative age effect still holds true in more than just hockey. Take elementary school, for example. A student born in September is eleven months older than the youngest student. And while just less than a year may not seem like much to us, that’s one-eighth of a second grader’s life.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that both in junior hockey and education, older kids tend to perform better – meaning older kids tend to get greater opportunities. And the advantages or disadvantages gained at birth follow a person throughout their entire life. In fact, children selected for gifted programs and elite hockey players tend to be born in earlier months than their cohort. Twenty years later and these are the same kids playing in the NHL and graduating summa cum laude at Stanford.

And it makes sense – being older means more time for development. But does that mean kids eleven months younger don’t have the same academic potential – or athletic ability, or test taking ability?

As Malcolm sees it (and the data supports), the average person just isn’t good at judging talent or potential, leaving kids – and their talent – behind, just because the month they were born put them at an inherent disadvantage. This arbitrary detriment quickly becomes a real hardship, and it isn’t easy to break that cycle. And this, my friends, is where we come in.

Translating to HR

Until we change the system, we will continue wasting immense talent. Why? Because we aren’t looking for it in the right places, and we aren’t willing to look anywhere else. Talent does not live in a vacuum. According to Malcolm, people have preconceived notions that talent is a thing that exists, something that is tangible and measurable. And while it is possible to measure talent potential, we aren’t measuring it in the right way.

Which means folks in HR now have a unique opportunity to make work more equitable and more successful – simply by challenging conventional norms. After all, as Malcolm put it: “We can design systems that make people shine or we can design systems that make people quit.” Let’s help people shine.

How to help people shine

The relative age effect is based on encouragement. Those students given extra support, encouragement, and access are more likely to attend an Ivy League school. What if we began sharing encouragement with everyone? No matter where on the development/talent scale a person falls, they will all perform better with the encouragement of those around them.

We must also separate ability from context. Consider this: A candidate resume shows they left a previous job after only a few months. Some might assume the candidate is incompetent. But to people like Malcolm – and like you, too – this short job stint means nothing other than that – a job that didn’t work out. Perhaps it was due to personal circumstances, or a toxic work environment, or even coming to the realization that the job role is not challenging enough for the candidate. By thinking unconventionally, leaders can find diamonds in the rough. You just have to look for them.

Adjusting to this will take time – but the return on investment will be worth it on every level. Thankfully, we have already started the journey to rethink the way we work. Whether it’s reconsidering education requirements for certain positions, transforming the interview process to give underrepresented groups equal opportunity, or implementing an internship program to offer job experience to high schoolers, we have the ability to level the playing field.

If there’s one thing to take away from Malcolm’s insightful, informative, and funny keynote, it’s that every human is unique. People have different cultures, opportunities, backgrounds, ways of working – and that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay! It’s the chance to shape the future of work for the better.

Clearly this is a big task, but Malcolm thinks we are the people to lead the charge. Now is the time for us to look at things differently, upend conventional norms, and make work better, one human at a time.

About the Author

Sarah Bloznalis

Sarah Bloznalis is a content marketing specialist at Workhuman from Dorchester, Mass. When she’s not writing about the future of work you can find her in the library, at the beach, or exploring the city.

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