10 LIES ABOUT WORK/Lie Nr. 1 – People Have Potential

It is a very common practice mainly in the corporate work environments nowadays when each year there is a work performance evalualtion in which your team leader evaluates you and your potential for future tasks at work or in general the recruiters with hiring managers evaluate a candidate at a job interview. The “leaders” doing these assesments are said to be evaluating people’s potential. They are all wired on the judgment saying that “People have potential” therefore they say, in order to be succesful in our bussiness “we must find those people with high potential”. This asssumption is not only wrong, it is totally out of context, has nothing to do with how people perform at workplace.

Say you are the “Team Leader” and you must look after the good performance on the job of each member in your team. Just for a moment, think of all the people in your team. Bring to mind each of their faces and names. Imagine and ask yourself:

  • What they’re working on now?
  • What they thrive at doing?
  • What they struggle with?
  • What they aspire to?

And now, with the 9-box performance evaluation grid shown below in front of you, answer this: Which one of them has the greatest potential?

Sooner or later in your assignment as a team leader, you’ll be asked this exact question and told to plot your response on the potential axis of your 9-box grid. And as you ponder your answer, you’ll pretty quickly run into some challenges. You might be quite clear that Jack is doing really well in his job today, but find yourself unsure of whether that means he has potential. And you might be equally certain that Katherine is also doing well, but at the same time realize that her job is very different from Jack’s job. If one of them has potential, does the other?

If, as seems to be implied, potential is some sort of universal quality, then:

  • How should you gauge it in 2 different people doing 2 different jobs?
  • What if Katherine is in fact struggling in her current role?

You might start to ask yourself whether current performance is the same as future potential or merely a clue to it, or whether, alarmingly, the 2 are not even related at all. Perhaps you’ll think to yourself that Katherine might have, hidden somewhere within her, the potential to do really well at something else. You might not ponder this for long, though, because if (like Jack) she seems to lack potential in one role, and then subsequently another, it will be quite hard to convince yourself that she does indeed have potential for an entirely different role. If she’s struggling now, then won’t she struggle wherever she goes?

Even if she isn’t struggling, if she is in fact one of your current high performers, she nonetheless wants to be challenged to grow, so you’ll be forced to start thinking about other jobs on other teams, jobs she might do equally well – or even better. And when she starts asking you about her future – as she surely will – you’ll quickly find yourself peering out into the fog. Since you’re not nearly as familiar with those other jobs on those other teams as you are with those on your own team, how can you truly know if she has the potential to excel elsewhere?

As a good team leader, you have a pretty clear sense of her present performance – what’s in front of you right now – but being asked to weigh her potential requires you to project out into a world you know much less about. This can be quite intimidating, not least because you’re aware that how you weigh Katherine’s potential – specifically, how you rate it – will more than likely stick to her for a long time. If you rate her highly, then the received wisdom, passed on to your fellow team leaders, will be that she is now a “high potential,” or “hi-po” and she will carry this quality around with her wherever she goes. She will get more attention from these other team leaders, be given more opportunities, more training, more investment, and if ever her performance falters, more benefit of the doubt.

On the flip side, you realize that if you rate her poorly on potential, she’ll become a proverbial “lo-po,” which will be a tough label to shake off, no matter how hard she tries. Your rating of her on potential, or more accurately, your guess about how much value she will bring to the company in the future, will, in all sorts of real ways, create her future. That’s a lot of responsibility for you to bear.

Katherine, meanwhile, perhaps aware that there’s another talent review in the offing, is wondering whether she’ll make the “hi-po” list. Like you, she isn’t sure what potential is, or what a high potential is. She’s just trying to do good work every day. She knows that potential is dearly a good thing to possess – it comes with all sorts of goodies and perks – but, at heart, what she really wants to know is whether she’s doing well enough in her job right now, and where her career is going next. If your rating of her on potential helps her career, then wonderful – but if it doesn’t, or if being branded a “lo-po” makes getting help with her future less likely, then she’s going to be frustrated. There’s a great deal at stake for her here. At some point, she will ask you what you rated her, and then you’ll somehow have to justify your decision. And this will be super tricky, since, in the back of your mind, you’ll know that you weren’t so very dear what potential was in the first place, nor what dues might point you to it, nor what scale you should have used to rate her on it.

But that’s a worry for later. Right now you’ll look around and see that other team leaders on other teams seem able to announce confidently who has potential on each of their teams, so you’ll put Katherine’s inevitable questions out of mind, pull out your 9-box grid, and do your best to do right by her. And her future.

Of course, you can’t really blame your company for putting you into this sort of high-pressure situation. Assigning a “potential” rating to each employee is a product of some very good and necessary intentions. Your company is a maximization machine – it wants to make the best use of its finite resources – so it is greatly interested in identifying precisely who to invest in, and how.

The problem with this stems from the way your company executes on these good intentions. Why, for example, does it assume that it will net a good return only from certain people? Surely, the cliche that “Our people are our greatest asset” applies to all of the people in the company. As we’ve seen, every human brain retains its ability to learn and grow throughout adulthood. For sure, each brain grows at a different speed and in a different way, but this implies only that each person learns differently, not that – categorically – some people do and some don’t. Therefore, the best course of action for any maximization machine worth its salt would be to figure out where and how each brain can grow the most, rather than zeroing in on only a select few brains and casting aside the others. But sadly, somewhere along the line, companies by and large recoiled from this natural diversity, seeing it as simply too varied and too individualized to make sense of, and decided instead that the most pragmatic approach would be to invent a generic quality called “potential” rate every person on it, and then invest most in those who have lots of it, and much less in those who don’t.

Assuming just for the moment that potential actually is a trait, the first problem we encounter is how to measure it. As we saw earlier, if we want to measure a trait, we can’t ask someone to rate you on it, because it’s impossible for any rater to be either perceptive enough or objective enough to reach into your psyche and assign a number to what they see inside you. And in the case of potential, the measurement challenge is orders of magnitude more difficult, since we are asking the rater to rate you not on a trait displayed in your current behavior but on a projection, a probability that you possess something that might just possibly be displayed in some future situation. It’s flat-out impossible for the rater to do this reliably, so whatever data he produces about you will be the very worst kind of bad data. Yet this data will, as we saw with Katherine, create the future. But:

  • is there even anything here to measure?
  • is potential a thing at all?
  • do you really think that there exists in people a trait that confers on some lucky few the ability to grow more and learn more regardless of setting or circumstance?
  • do you think that we could throw this hi-po into any situation and his potential would enable him to adapt, and then thrive?
  • do you think that this general potential will act like a turbocharger, and take any inputs from the world of work and boost them into outstanding performance?

If you do think this, then you do so in the complete absence of any evidence. Telling that someone “has potential” is one of the biggest lie most managers say in a corporate workplace. Examples of people who were constanlty poorly evaluated for their potential is countless, here including Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and many others, even myself.

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