Anyone who has worked in the talent aspect of HR for any length of time knows that high potential talent identification is anything but an exact science. Even removing the politics that surround every group talent discussion, you can’t escape that a talent assessment is only as good as the assessor. In most cases, leaders struggle with this. Talent assessment is no joke.

What Makes Talent Assessment So Tough?

So, why is talent assessment so difficult? The answer is pretty simple, actually. There are people, with all their failings and biases, at every step of the process. Leaders are people and are vulnerable to all the missteps in judgment as everyone else. An average person’s dating history shows how challenging it can be to really assess people who are campaigning to only show you their best side.

So, how do we decipher our true exceptional performers from the liabilities?

There are three main ways that poor performers end up getting high ratings and where your great employees may not be recognized.

Leaders reward likability over performance

Many leaders like an agreeable employee. These employees are helpful, always have a smile and wholeheartedly agree with anything you suggest. They are just plain easy employees to manage.

It’s a natural human tendency to like people who think and act like you, so often leaders attempt to surround themselves with similar team members. The challenge is, these types of employees don’t provide the diversity of thinking and creative problem solving you need to take your organization to the next level or, in some cases, even keep it afloat.

It’s the employees who are brave enough to challenge the status quo, try novel approaches, and speak up when something is amiss that provide the highest value to an organization.

Unfortunately, these employees are often wrongly labelled as confrontational or difficult to deal with.

This explains why many successful people in this world (Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfeld, Walt Disney) have been fired or suffered a poor performance review at least once in their career, often for ‘performing poorly’ in the area in which they eventually became hugely successful.

These types of behaviours can make it difficult for leaders to see performance problems and, in extreme cases, can mask devious behaviour.

Real-Life Example

In the first paying job I had, the company implemented an employee of the month program to incentivize employees.

The first employee of the month, and one that won several times, was a nice young girl who was very gregarious. The customers and managers alike loved her. She laughed at all their jokes, always had a smile and an agreeable attitude at work. She appeared to be a dream employee!

However, she also routinely helped herself to the till and was smart enough to cover her tracks. She financed a trip overseas with the proceeds from the cash drawer until eventually, the company wasn’t solvent enough to continue business.

However, likely due to her likability, her actions were never questioned.

Talent Assessment Tip #1

An employee’s likability doesn’t necessarily equate to competence and integrity. Leaders still must monitor their performance and get objective, outside feedback from others. It can be difficult to see challenging behaviours in people we like, and even more difficult to hold someone we really like to task for their negative behaviours.

This is where leaders need to step up.

Training in difficult conversations, peer mentoring and role-playing can help leaders prepare for this. While we all like harmony at work and chaos is not productive, the best leaders look for people who challenge them and value the different perspectives that they offer…and they make sure that value is reflected during talent assessments.

Annual performance evaluations fail to reflect the entire year’s performance

Another human trait that impacts talent assessments involves the human brain and how our memory works. The challenge here is twofold.

First, we have difficulty remembering exactly when past events took place. And second, we place more importance on things that happened recently.

In many organizations, performance or talent assessments only take place once a year. Employees scramble to promote what they’ve done. Additionally, managers try to remember the performance of their entire team over the full year. Proximity and relevancy become important factors here, as many leaders are only truly evaluating what the employee has achieved in the last few months.

Often, it is how the employee has made the leader feel in the last few months and how relevant the recent contributions are to what is pressing today that are given the highest consideration. I’ve seen instances where a very small mistake, made at the unfortunate time of performance evaluations, has cost an employee dearly on performance ratings, bonuses and salary increases.

On the flip side, employees who have had egregious missteps early in the year had those issues dismissed as they contributed something that the leader valued the week prior.

Leaders have also been unclear as to whether behaviour or performance issues happened in the current year or the previous year when the HR representative reminded them of issues from early in the year.

Peoples’ memories are short, particularly when it comes to remembering what others have done.

(Hey, leaders! Don’t miss this post next: CEOs, You’re Likely the Reason Your Organizational Culture

Talent Assessment Tip #2

The best way to combat this is by having multiple meetings throughout the year. They must be aimed specifically at getting updates and giving feedback on performance.

Ideally, you’ll have regular discussions with your team members and document progress and challenges after each meeting. If you aren’t able to have regular meetings, schedule a few throughout the year in addition to the year-end meeting. The key is documenting both performance issues and successes after each meeting.

Don’t forget to make notes on how work is completed as well as what was accomplished. You don’t want to reward bullying or negative behaviour!

Keeping a notebook to record comments and updates for all your team members is helpful. Use it at any time to capture notes as things arise and keep all your notes in one place when assessment time comes around. This allows you to have a good handle on your entire team’s performance for the whole year. Not to mention, you won’t have to rely solely on your memory or others’ recollection of events.

Those that are the best at managing up often put their interests above the team

Many organizations don’t have a good handle on their culture or don’t have strong leadership. This results in a pattern of ‘kiss up and kick down’ among some leaders. They tend to get ahead by focusing all their energy on the senior leaders. At the same time, they get very little energy on supporting their own team or on driving their team and organization to success.

When this type of behaviour is occurring, there is often an inverse correlation between how senior leaders view these employees and how their teams view them.

(For more on workplace culture, read this post next: Workplace Culture: Finding a Balance of Love & Power)

Too often, these self-serving behaviours go unnoticed at the senior levels. Ultimately, those exhibiting them are rewarded with good ratings, promotions, desired projects, and bonuses. The individual’s team, as well as their peers who are supporting their teams, are left feeling defeated, un-appreciated and decidedly disengaged.

These feelings are intensified if talent decisions are made that fly counter to the communicated values in the company. Word travels rapidly among networks and your organization can quickly get a reputation as a toxic and negative place to work. The result? Your ‘high performers’ are not actually performing as you believe and you risk losing your true good talent. At the same time, you also risk not being able to attract high-quality future talent.

Real-Life Example

I had experience in an organization with pockets of cultural toxicity throughout the workplace up to the executive team. It was so pervasive and well known that many potential job candidates would mention, and ask about, the company’s negative reputation during the hiring process.

When speaking with a newly hired employee, she indicated that the reason she joined the organization was due to the awful reputation of current and former employees. She came from an organization that was well known for its great culture and wanted a challenge. This may have worked well in attracting talent in this one instance. But it surely hindered the attraction of high-quality candidates for many other positions.

Once your organization has a negative cultural reputation due to wrong behaviours being rewarded, it’s very difficult to change that perception in the market.

Talent Assessment Tip #3

To help prevent this, you first must accept that this may be the case in your organization and, potentially, with employees you believe perform the best.

The first thing to do is be really present and aware of your team. Simply be present in your teams’ work area every day. I often hear from senior leaders that they just don’t have time to spend with their front-line employees. But it really isn’t complicated or timely.

Real-Life Example

One executive I know, whose organization had very low engagement scores, combated this by spending the first 10 minutes of his day walking through his team and speaking to people. He learned everyone’s name and bits about their personal lives, which resulted in an environment of high trust. This opened the door to many more interactions. He would go to the source for real-time information on what was happening and people were comfortable giving an honest answer.

(On the topic of high trust, take a look at this post next: Are Your Corporate Values Destroying Trust?)

It’s also helpful to ask for feedback from your employees.

At a minimum, other leaders should be canvassed. The best case is when honest feedback can be garnered from peers and direct reports as well. There are many tools available today for collecting feedback when a conversation or email request is challenging. This type of feedback is most critical for those at the top and the bottom of the performance scale.


It’s in the company’s best interest to ensure you have a full picture when assessing talent and creating development plans.

More Help with Talent Assessment

As leaders, we are busy. Leading people can be challenging with time constraints and budget pressures. All these factors make us even more susceptible to biases and human fallibility. Using the tips above when assessing talent can help you identify which employees have the best long-term potential.

Doing so will allow your entire team to function better where everyone feels recognized for their contribution.

For more information please visit our Strategic HR Consulting page on our website.

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This article was first published in 2017 and was updated in 2021 just for you.