The Power of Contextual Intelligence

Our culture admires, celebrate and romanticise leaders. We salute individuals and give them credit for major organisational and political successes. The problem is that our evaluation of individual success is often wrong. We tend to misread people’s success and ignore contextual factors, which strongly influence their results. We simply lack contextual intelligence. Let me give you a few examples.
A few years ago, Harvard professor Boris Groysberg set out to analyze hundreds of star analysts at the investment banks of Wall Street. Groysberg wanted to learn more about what happens when a top performer is headhunted and changes job. Is the person able to transfer his stardom and great results to another organization context? Does the star continue to shine, or does it fade in a new environment?
Interesting enough Boris Groysberg’s study showed almost consistently a clear decrease in the performance of the top analysts in their new jobs. Remember that these analysts did not changed to an entirely new industry. They only changed to a company in the same industry, where they did an identical job with the same type of content and customers, just in a new organizational context. Yet they failed big time. Their performance was simply not portable.
My point is that what on the surface looks like unique talent and a genuine star is not necessarily so special when you understand the context in which their performance was created. The success of these top analysts was not really about their personal abilities, as it was about the resources, culture, colleagues, networks and structures that surrounded them in their job. The companies who hired these top analysts simply misread their success, they lacked contextual intelligence and they didn’t understand that when it comes to recruitment: “what you see is not necessarily what you get”.
When perception fails
More than 30 years ago, psychology professor Geral Salancik did a simple experiment illustrating the lack of contextual intelligence in judgement. Salancik put a person to control a model train while it drove around a railroad. Another person was positioned to observe and monitor how the person operated the train. Neither of them, however, were aware that Geral Salancik was constantly changing the speed of the train. In an unpredictable rhythm he increased the speed of the train for a few seconds before slowing it down again. This meant that the train derailed several times and was impossible to control. Interesting enough the person who was steering the train, quickly realized that he had very little control over it. However, the observer had a completely different experience. He could not see that changes in speed were outside the driver’s control. Instead he saw a person who was not able to keep the model train on the rails. For the same reason he thought that the train’s poor performance was caused by the skills of the driver, when in fact the driver suffered from something totally out of his control. Exactly the same thing happens to us when we are making judgements about leaders and employees. The context, the circumstances and limitations that affect people’s performance, are often invisible to us and therefore we make false assumptions about people’s potential.
Dig below the surface
In every field and industry you can find examples of people misreading success and lacking contextual intelligence. A few months ago the Argentinean super star, Lionel Messi, was named at the football player of the year after having beaten a 40-year-old record of goals scored in one calender year. There is no doubt that Lionel Messi is a superstar, but we must also take into account that he plays for FC Barcelona (the best team in the world during the past five years), he has world class team mates and he is being exposed to many more scoring opportunities than the average football striker. What would be much more interesting is to judge a player not on goals scored but on efficiency and conversion of chances. This kind of contextual intelligence would open our eyes for players that may have been overlooked because they are not privileged with the same playing ground and the same context as Lionel Messi.
I often ask business leaders: Would you hire a sales person from Apple or one from Microsoft? The typical response is to go for the candidate from Apple, because he works in the most successful company. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Think about all the temporary advantages that a sales person in Apple has compared to a sales person in Microsoft: great reputation, strong momentum, superior products etc. Therefore my question is: Is it possible that a great sales result in Apple might indicate less potential than an average sales result in Microsoft? Very often it is organisations that make individuals successful, not the other way around.
Judgments about performance and potential should be made based on a solid foundation of contextual intelligence. Dig below the surface to learn how the numbers were achieved or what stood in the way that might have prevented them from being better. Was a manager successful more because of favourable market conditions rather than because he was a competent decision-maker? Or was his success truly down to the fact that he excelled in all their responsibilities?

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