What is Talent Psychology?

Talent psychology is the combined study of high potential and leadership toward the application of this new body of knowledge to talent management, organizational development, workplace dynamics, and career advancement. Dr. Mary Jacobsen is considered by many to be the foremost international expert on gifted/talented adults, and has been providing groundbreaking insights and research on high potential since 1998. In particular, she investigates the relationship between high ability and effective leadership. From the outset she has encountered an alarming contradiction between what is true about high-ability individuals and prevailing organizational thinking and procedures. This disconnect is the basis of many unseen problems in talent identification, acquisition, management, and retention, and the catalyst for Dr. Jacobsen’s efforts to advance a new integrated field, talent psychology.

Talented people and high organizational performance are inescapably linked. However, until now there has been almost no way to align the authentic needs of high-ability individuals with the needs of organizations. Embedded within talent psychology is the assumption that we can establish how personality and cognitive processes operate together to differentiate top talent from the mainstream and exceptional abilities from average.

All organizations “manage” their top talent whether or not they have a formal process in place. And all organizations have perspectives and beliefs that shape their talent management approaches. When the underlying beliefs about talent are grossly mistaken, good decisions cannot follow. First and foremost, to avoid serious and expensive organizational pitfalls, a clear understanding high-potential is a prerequisite–one that is derived from sound research versus myth and opinion. This is essential because the age-old stereotypes of high-ability people permeate the mind-sets of the vast majority of people, whether in business settings or otherwise.  Only when those involved in talent management, particularly line managers, have the tools to question and correct preconceived notions can we hope to see an end to entrenched assumptions and preventable organizational decisions about talent

Contrary to widespread stereotypes, high-ability/high potential individuals have:

  • intelligence that is well above average
  • a powerful need for challenge and mental stimulation
  • an ability to learn and apply complex information faster and better than others
  • a penchant for considering things from multiple perspectives
  • insatiable curiosity; an inquiring mind
  • a tendency to question the status quo
  • exceptional powers of perception and insight
  • complex and inclusive thinking
  • remarkable comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • exceptional adaptability; the ability to serve as a catalyst of change
  • extra resourcefulness, resilience, soundness of mind, and emotional stability
  • an ability to anticipate trends, detect problems, and develop effective solutions earlier than others

Interestingly, these traits nearly always match characteristics of effective leaders, of utmost importance to organizations in today’s global “war for talent”.

The advantage of a talent psychology perspective cannot be understated.  With a correct understanding of high-ability individuals—their traits, how they learn, how they work best, their motivations and needs—we have gone a long way toward development plans that actually fit. Those who are responsible for talent management and acquisition are far better equipped to help align high potentials with important organizational goals, and to offer effective development and retention strategies. Moreover, guesswork about succession planning can often be reduced when we acknowledge the powerful correlation between high-ability and effective leadership.

Few people who are not mavericks are likely to change the world or lead us into the future.  Furthermore, talent is not a commodity. Rather, it is that rare something possessed by a small portion of individuals who can make all the difference. Indeed, they are the very people for whom talent development programs exist!  But when development programs are not aligned with individual needs and goals, everybody loses.  Moreover, when top talent leaves, not only does their talent leave along with them, other top talent follows them out the door. Being well-versed in talent psychology is a prerequisite for any organization whose success depends on cutting-edge idea makers, exceptional leaders, and outstanding contributors.  Talent managers who are of the same mind will lead the field and help move their organizations ahead of the rest.