February 26th, 2019
What is the difference between talent and cultural similarity, especially in human relationship jobs?
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pinsker: And once people get these sorts of jobs, you write about the importance of “sponsorship”—basically, when some senior employee informally takes someone younger under their wing and helps them advance through the company. What did you notice about how those systems of sponsorship worked?
Laurison: I think that a lot of people, on some level what they think they’re doing when they sponsor young co-workers is spotting talent—they called it “talent-mapping” in the accounting firm we studied. But a lot of people we talked to were also able to reflect and say, “Part of why I was excited about that person, probably, is because they reminded me of a younger version of myself.” The word we use in sociology is homophily—people like people who are like themselves.
One of the big ideas of the book, for me, is it’s really hard for any given individual in any given situation to fully parse what’s actual talent or intelligence or merit, and what’s, Gosh, that person reminds me of me, or I feel an affinity for them because we can talk about skiing or our trips to the Bahamas. Part of it is also that what your criteria are for a good worker often comes from what you think makes you a good worker.
A salesperson will be more effective if they sell to people similar to themselves. If a salesguy who loves strip clubs gets some clients who love strip clubs, does that mean he is talented, or does that mean he has the right customers. If the same salesguy is suddenly reassigned to a different firm, run entirely by women, what would you say about his talent?
Laurison: Probably the best example of this is the television-production firm we studied. The name that we gave to the culture there was “studied informality”—nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man—who was black and from a working-class background—who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.
There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear—things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing “just wear a suit and tie every day” might have been. The rules weren’t obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.
Pinsker: And trying to figure that out comes at an emotional and psychological cost, no?
Laurison: For a lot of people from poor and working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, being in these environments felt like you had to put on a performance all day. They didn’t feel at home and comfortable in their work environment—even people who had been quite successful, who had gotten toward the top of their occupations.