Harvard Business Review

Are Your Most Talented People Losing Their Minds?


Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 28, 2011 10:14 AM

For knowledge-intensive industries, people's talent, expertise and ingenuity are essential ingredients for success. Agile minds are our richest resource for sharpening our competitive edge. So just how closely should management monitor their employees' minds?

Tracking employee time, location, and attention is a no-brainer for most firms. Privacy matters, of course, but it's seldom central. Many firms won't hesitate to administer personality tests to see what kind of character and temperament their staff brings to work. Invasive? Perhaps. But enlightened executives use what they learn to better invest in and coach their people. Anticipating weaknesses matters as much as building strengths. Savvy managers are always sensitive to what might be going wrong as what should be getting better. Effective executives, as Peter Drucker noted, want to get ahead of potential problems.

If determining whether your employees are losing their ability to effectively process ideas and information costs next to nothing, aren't you ethically obligated to find that out? If minds matter most, assuring that they're working well becomes a business imperative. You'd be remiss if you knowingly allowed employees with propensities for physical injury to move heavy machinery. The economic risks of cognitive liability call for comparable precaution. Those risks are growing. Get ready to manage them.

America's aging population has inspired an explosion of medical research into Alzheimer's, dementia and cognitive diminution. Of course, these unhappy pathologies are global phenomena. Their causes and treatments, sadly, remain uncertain and ill-defined. Their impact on the workplace is demographically destined to increase. There's no escape.

A recent and radical revolution in better, faster, and cheaper diagnostics, however, is furiously underway. Our ability to detect the early-onset of cognitive affliction has improved by orders of magnitudes in barely a decade. These tests are not yet foolproof or definitive. But they're improving. They offer important indicators of serious cognitive issues to come. Free, fast, and simple web-based diagnostics already can alert you whether you, or your employees, will likely confront difficult challenges in the not-too-distant future. Is choosing ignorance a sustainable behavior for knowledge-intensive organizations? My bet is, no.

Patients undergoing complex heart operations, clients getting legal advice and venture capitalists investing millions in entrepreneurial teams might understandably want to know the cognitive health of their doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. In fact, they'll probably insist on knowing. In an era of growing global litigation, regulation and accountability, do they have the right to do so? If you seek premium prices from customers and clients for your knowledge-intensive services, they may insist they do. They might even want to administer such tests to your employees themselves. Should you allow?


Would you take such a diagnostic if administered by your employer or a potential client?survey software

A powerful case could be made that regularly running such tests could be in the organization's best interest as part of its human capital "quality control" investment. Perhaps submitting to such examinations — not unlike drug testing — will become a condition of employment.

While personal and professional pain around the likely loss of one's faculties is unavoidable, the legal and ethical implications have only begun to be addressed. Unless and until meaningful therapeutic interventions, or outright cures, for Alzheimer's and dementia materialize, this diagnostic dilemma will be one of the most contentious and controversial issues confronting tomorrow's workforce. In America, workplace discrimination around disabilities is forbidden — unless that disability directly impacts job performance. For knowledge workers and service providers whose expertise relies upon their mental acuity, the stress of growing older will be compounded by the specter of measurable cognitive decline. As previously discussed, computational prostheses can certainly play a mitigating role in buying time. But — like it or not — one of executive leadership's most difficult duties may be to rigorously examine those who appear to cognitively falter.

No doubt, executives will have to lead by example. Are you ready to take your test?

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Michael Schrage is a researcher at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and a visiting fellow at the Imperial College Business School

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