Which Gets You Further At Work: Effort Or Talent?

Most of us have no trouble admitting that some people are more talented than others, yet we believe everyone can work hard. Not quite, says one psychologist.

Which Gets You Further At Work: Effort Or Talent?
[Photo: ZamoraA/iStock]

Twenty years after McKinsey researchers declared a “war for talent” under way, organizations and leaders appear to be more talent-obsessed than ever. There are endless conferences, books, and C-level roles all geared toward mastering the mysteries of talent: finding it, attracting it, rewarding it, developing it, and of course retaining it.


But while this obsession rests on a correct premise–that talent drives individual performance and, in turn, organizational success–it’s belied by the way businesses typically spend their money. As I discuss in my latest book, on average, organizations actually spend less than 20% of their talent management budgets on talent acquisition, compared to 80% on training, learning, and development. This is consistent with the popularity of effort-related traits, such as “grit” and a “growth mind-set,” which are widely regarded as malleable catalysts of high performance. In other words, organizations seem much more willing to bet on effort than on talent.

So what do we actually know about the relationship between talent and effort? Is it ultimately more important to be able to get better at something than to be naturally good at it to begin with? Or, put in employers’ terms, would you rather invest in exceptional skills or in disciplined, relentless workers?

Related: The War For Talent Is Over, And Everyone Lost

Where Talent And Effort Meet

The scientific evidence suggests that the relationship between effort and talent is rather complex. On the one hand, there’s clearly a natural tension between both qualities; one can’t be understood without the other. Indeed, talent is essentially performance minus effort: The more talented you are, the less effort you have to put in to reach a certain level of performance. By the same token, if you want to outperform someone who’s more talented than you, you’d better work harder than they do (unless you’re lucky and they just underperform).

On the other hand, because effort is mostly driven by character traits–like how ambitious, driven, conscientious, or focused you are in general–one could arguably consider it part of talent. Some people are systematically more prone to displaying high levels of effort, meaning that their higher motivational baselines really do count as a key attribute of their potential. Plus, exceptional performers rarely stand out just because of their natural skills or abilities; they also tend to show extraordinary drive and motivation.

We tend to assume that effort is somehow more meritocratic than talent–that while only a few are perhaps “born” talented, everyone is endowed with willpower. Yet this is hardly the case. In fact, just like some people are relatively short on talents (or, for that matter, height), others are comparatively laid-back or low on motivation. To be sure, neither talent nor effort are fully predetermined at birth, but both factors are still similarly influenced by genes. For example, researchers have found that 41% of the variability in conscientiousness (the main character trait explaining individual differences in effort) is likely attributable to genetics, compared with 48% for intelligence or general learning ability. In other words, talent is only 7% more heritable than effort.


Related: You’re Recruiting The Wrong Kind Of Talent–Here’s Why

Effort Only Goes So Far (And You Can Only Boost It So Much)

Leaving aside the nature/nurture factor, the scientific evidence also suggests that training and practice are far less important than many people believe. As a seminal 2014 meta-analysis showed, even in highly structured domains where performance is easy to measure (like games, music, and sports), practice accounts for around 20% of variability in performance. Moreover, practice effects are even lower for educational (4%) and work settings (1%). Thus for the average job, 99% of the variability between people’s job performance is due to factors other than training and practice, which makes their effort rather trivial vis-à-vis their talent.

That is not to say that effort is actually worthless. For instance, effort can affect people’s performance through other means than practice, like “task motivation,” which is the level of effort people exert when they’re trying to perform any given work task–whether it’s a customer service agent taking your call, an Uber driver driving you around, or an artist performing on stage. However, much of that critical effort is influenced by qualities people had prior to preparing for the task, let alone working on it.

Related: Why Successful Habits Are About Structure, Not Effort

In fact, if you define talent broadly enough to include character traits like ambition, drive, and conscientiousness, then practice and training are more likely to accentuate talent difference between people than reduce them. When talented people are also driven, they’ll actively seek out opportunities to maximize their potential, and vice versa. As in other domains of life, then, the rich get proverbially richer while the poor get poorer; so-called “human capital” is no exception.

So if you’re interested in predicting and driving high performance in your employees and leaders, where does this leave you? It basically means you should bet on the capabilities your team members already have, rather than those they don’t–including the skills that enable them to enhance or maximize their own, existing talents. General intelligence, people skills, curiosity, and drive, plus a healthy dose of self-awareness and humility, is a solid formula for talent most of the time–one that won’t require huge investments in practice or training.