Managing Talent: Getting from "Deer in the Headlights" to "Eye of the Tiger"

Jeffrey Meyers researched and edited thisarticle.

One analogy for managing talent and optimizing job fit could be that of a car’s gears: you can’t have everyone operating only in low/first gear or high/fifth gear (and you certainly don’t want them going in reverse!). But perhaps a better analogy I recently heard described a team by saying “We need less ‘deer in the headlights’ and more ‘eye of the tiger.’” It paints a vivid picture and makes you wonder which animal your staff resembles more.
When you think about your employees, you might subconsciously categorize them into performance groups of stellar, subpar, and those in the middle. Some are outgoing and aggressive (i.e., tigers), while others leave you wondering how much they “get it” and are they more trouble than the value they add (i.e., deer)
Optimizing talent in your organization is an important goal that is likely ever changing. The types of people you hire, develop, and promote should represent different skill sets, backgrounds, and levels of expertise in order to fulfill the various roles that make up a company.
You can’t have all tigers or all deer. A healthy organization has the right people in the right roles:
  • Tigers are aggressive and focused on their goal. They are predators and don’t hesitate to target, stalk, and attack their prey. They are lean and muscular, not bulky or clumsy. They are territorial yet also sociable.
  • Deer are more placid, timid, and easily spooked. They are typically non-threatening, although they can do serious damage if you run into one, or if they stumble into an unfamiliar environment. However, be careful not to prejudge this group too quickly, for the antlers on large bucks are reminders of their experience, wisdom, and grandeur.
When I think of the phrase “eye of the tiger,” my mind first recalls the stirring theme song by Survivor from Rocky III. (Guess I’m showing my age there.) Central to the plot of that movie was a former adversary helping Rocky to rekindle the fire inside, find his aggression, and the will to fight. To do that, he needed the eye of the tiger. If you can look past the wardrobe from the post-disco era, the message is very timeless and relevant to managing talent.
Aggressive sales people epitomize tigers in business, although they can be found across all functions throughout an organization. These people are generally forward thinking and extremely achievement-oriented. While they will certainly help you reach your targets, they can also be difficult to rein in at times and control. Unless yours is a sales organization, you’d likely not want an organization made up exclusively of tigers – they administrative tasks and mundane work would likely suffer.
Conversely, when you think of “deer in the headlights,” that startled gaze makes you worry that the person doesn’t know what they’re doing or aren’t up to the task. Try to assess whether they need extra coaching, training, or mentoring to do the job. If the goal was a stretch, then this could be a reasonable learning experience. But if you’ve hired someone you thought was a good candidate, only to find they’re not as qualified as the interview process led you to believe, then this is a good case for using assessments to improve the likelihood of success of your new hires. The same could be said of promotions and other job moves.
Four Factors for Getting from Deer in the Headlights to Eye of the Tiger
What can you do with an existing employee who loses confidence or looks like a deer in the headlights? Here are four factors that can contribute to the effect as well as resolve it:
  • Skill Level: Does the person possess the right technical skills, experience, and critical thinking to be able to perform the job successfully? Can they be trained to learn, or are they so far over their head that finding them a new role (or firing them) is the better option?
  • Job Fit: Did you take a successful individual performer and move them prematurely into a managerial or supervisory role? Is the person talented, but outside their level of capability?
  • Communication: Message sent does not equal message received. How clearly was the assignment communicated and explained? Is this a new task in which all are finding their way, or are there examples to reference or incumbents to consult for getting back on track?
  • Manager Effectiveness: When you see your employees struggling, don’t be quick to blame them. Consider how effectively you have assigned tasks (are their gaps or overlaps among employees?), communicated the job (what might sound simple to you might not be to them) and how it fits in with the objectives of the department and company. Have you issued conflicting directives?
Beyond these factors, it is also possible that the person is suffering from other non-work-related issues that have caused them to lose focus. This is where an open culture of dialogue can greatly benefit both the employee and organization. Try talking to the person in a non-threatening way to determine the root of the problem and see if can be easily corrected. If the problem persists, document the steps you’ve taken and set performance goals to be met or used as grounds for dismissal.