Frustration About Sums it Up: Navigating Giftedness in the Workplace

  • May 29, 2024
  • Dr. Nicole C. Scott
Dr Nicole Scott

In 1972, the Marland Report highlighted that gifted and talented children need different educational programs and services to reach their fullest potential.  The presumption is that, if provided the right educational services, gifted children grow up to be gifted adults that achieve life outcomes relative to their giftedness when compared to their non-gifted peers. However, overall, individuals who have been identified as gifted during school do not go on to have career/life outcomes as high as would be expected.

Why?  What happens between high school and entering the world of work?  Is this apparent lack of reaching full potential a phenomenon that happens within the gifted individual, in the workplace environment, or something else? And is there something that can be done about it?

Having lived my own relatively unremarkable career outcomes and having workplace needs that were unmet, I was curious what similarities or common themes in the experience of giftedness in the workplace existed among gifted adults. So, in 2010 I set forth to explore the question and to identify the relevant shared experiences of giftedness at work that may be influencing the gifted adult’s seemingly unremarkable career outcomes.

The study was a heuristic inquiry and grounded in a belief that all meaning is constructed at the intersection of where and individual understands themselves and how they relate to their existence in the world.  By nature, I sought to uncover the relevant components of the meaning and experience of giftedness, and, thus, was open to the essence of the experience as it unfolded. Data collection for the inquiry was conducted at the individual/whole person level and relied heavily on the use of interviews, which included guiding questions, but allowed for each co-researcher to express the meaning and experience of giftedness in the workplace in their own words.

The results of the inquiry revealed that the meaning and essence of the experience of giftedness in the workplace is, at its core, a frustrating one.  It begins with the experience of multipotentiality and the intrinsic and undeniable drive to explore one’s abilities and pursue work in a passionate way. However, this passion and drive to produce and to utilize talents to their fullest, tends to highlight the gifted adult’s differences from his non-gifted workplace peers, which are not embraced nor celebrated by those peers or most managers.  Even the deepest understanding of this reality does not meter the experience of needing to curb one’s own abilities in response to the incongruent social expectations for group behavior that the gifted adults in the workplace must navigate successfully to meet professional goals.

The gifted adult must either assimilate, as best they can, or flounder in isolation.  There is a struggle between honoring the Self and functioning with the average workplace peer that creates a texturally different social experience for the gifted adult. The core of this struggle is value based; the average workplace norm places value on social acumen, whereas the gifted adult tends to value intellectual pursuits. Said another way, success in the workplace tends to be closely linked to one’s ability to socialize and build mutually beneficial social relationships – and the gifted adult does not engage in this same socialization and relationship building practices as the norm, thus they are segregated from the social rewards, such as pay raises and promotions.

Unfortunately, companies and many leaders are not leaning into creating the right environment for the gifted adult to reach their greatest potential.  This requires providing a customized experience in the workplace and that does take some effort and understanding, but the payoff is real. 

At the time of the inquiry, I found that gifted adults who do find the employer or manager(s) who are open to creating an environment that honors the needs of the gifted employee, the gifted employee thrives and the employer benefits from the retention of the gifted employee.  The majority of co-researchers had been with their current employer for more than 6 years, with some upwards of 20 years. At the time of the inquiry, according to the BLS, 69% of adults were no longer with the same employers within 5 years.  As of the last BLS census, the number has risen to 70.4%. Retaining top talent is a win for any employer.

To learn more about giftedness at work and across the lifespan, please join me at MENSA’s 2024 Colloquium where I will present more on my research and provide practical strategies employers and leaders can implement to unleash the gifted employee’s talents. The colloquium is open to the public and available to stream.