What Talent Managers Can Learn From Kids


Kids say — and do —the darndest things.

I was reminded of this on a number of recent occasions. At a dinner for a friend’s birthday, one buddy of mine told of a time his young niece thought it would be funny if she pulled out the stepladder from under him as he was trying to screw in a light bulb. A work colleague a day later spoke of his 3-year-old’s weeklong pirate phase, where he insisted on wearing an eye patch and pirate garb each day.

Then there are the notorious “toilet stories,” the details of which don’t typically reach public broadcast. Still, if the look on the faces of parents hinting of such bathroom travails is any indication, it appears as if the memory conjures up a paradoxical blend of disgust and amusement.

I don’t have kids, but I can see how they can be a handful. They can be messy. They can be overwhelming. They can be destructive. They can be a total pain. They can also be fun and playful and an absolute joy to be around. Perhaps most important, kids are examples we adults can learn from.

While many working adults might scold children — and even younger colleagues — for their inexperience, immaturity or irresponsible behavior, kids in many ways have admirable qualities that adults don’t have.

In some instances, kids are literally smarter than adults.

Take the ability to learn languages. As many psychologists have pointed out, children are better at learning languages than adults. Their brains simply have more of what psychologists call plasticity, or a quality of being easily shaped or molded.

This evolutionary flexibility allows kids to learn things at a level that adults can’t compete with. Some psychologists even say that kids are better than adults at learning certain motor skills, particularly around social interaction.

There are also things we can learn from kids that have little to do with brain science — things that we can observe and apply to our adult lives.

Think of the attitudinal qualities kids often display that adults have grown out of for some reason or another. Kids, for instance, are persistent optimists; they are often filled with aspirational, hopeful thinking.

These attributes captured my attention after viewing a video of a February 2010 TED Talk by author, activist and child prodigy Adora Svitak titled “What Adults Can Learn From Kids.” In the talk, Svitak, then 12 years old, argued that adults should stop underestimating kids’ abilities and instead learn to embrace them.

She’s right. As someone under 30 who is just starting to experience the full scope of adulthood, it’s easy to see how adults get trapped in negative thinking or burdened by a sense of mounting responsibility and importance.

This is especially evident at work. Just think of how often leaders who are obsessed with organizational politics and formal hierarchy suppress good ideas. Or how about the manager afraid to take risks because they’re too focused on the negative — and often exaggerated — repercussions.

This isn’t to say we adults can just start showing up to work wearing footie pajamas and think responsibility, accountability and expectation will get thrown out the window.

The message here isn’t that adults should act like kids again. It is to use the admirable qualities in kids to learn how to become better adults.

So as you look for new ways to develop yourselves as talent managers in 2016, keep in mind that sometimes the best lessons don’t come from seasoned executives or even magazines such as this one.

Sometimes the best development lessons come from that 3-year-old dressed as a pirate trying to pull the stepladder out from under you as you try to change a light bulb.

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