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

Everybody does that.

I must admit that after working in industry for some years and seeing how companies work I can perfectly understand why many of them fail in business, some are failing dramatically. Or let’s say they literally go bankrupt. Why ? well… that’s very oblivious for me, I have no doubt that it’s due to huge incompetence in management and very poor sense of leadership. Well incompetence in management = poor sense of leadership in fact I said the same thing twice because this is the only reason not to be successful in business. I want to highlight this. So the first lie about I will talk about here is about “having potential”. Most of the managers judge people like that. But not only the high level managers, but also al kind of job in higher hierarchy  from team leader to CEO. Most of them have this sick judgement by saying: “People have potential” therefore “we must find those with big potential”.  My dear friends in management positions, if you have this mentality you, can very friendly go to hell and never come back. I would never accept to have one of you having this attitude as my manager. Keep reading this post and you’ll see what I mean.

In order to begin let me tell you ”The story of Joe”.

This is the daily life of Joe, as an entrepreneur

“Joe’s an entrepreneurial sort. In the early days of the internet, he founded a pioneering yellow-pages company that integrated directory listings with mapping technology and managed to secure backing from a venture-capital firm. The investors came in and, as is the practice of such firms, evaluated all the existing executives on their potential for guiding the future of the company. Sadly for Joe, they decided that he didn’t have much of it. He had never displayed leadership in his high school or college life, he wasn’t class president or captain of the lacrosse team, and now, looking at his current work and style, they determined that he lacked the potential to set the future vision and to build the right team around him. They demoted him to head programmer, and brought in a professional executive to run the company. Joe didn’t shine in this new role either. He had some software skills, but they were unpredictable, resulting in a mess of spaghetti code that other, more experienced developers had to pull apart and de-tangle. In fact, so messy were his creations that the entire code base of the company’s product had to be rewritten. Everyone agreed that although Joe clearly had drive, he would never become one of the company’s leading software engineers. He just didn’t have enough potential. Becoming increasingly frustrated with his diminished position, and sensing that the investors didn’t see much of a future for him, Joe waited for the company to be acquired and then left to start his own financial services company. Here, he did what he’d always done – worked hard, pushed hard, challenged everything – and his new company grew large enough that an even bigger player swooped in and bought it from him. The leaders of this new company, too, were unimpressed with his potential – or confused by it, or something – so he left once more, this time to see whether he could do interesting work in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering. The jury is still out on his new ventures, and real profits have yet to show up on the books, but with him at the helm, his companies currently employ hundreds of people and are making truly innovative products. If he hadn’t done what he did, these jobs wouldn’t exist, and neither would the products. And in this sense, Joe is exactly what we want a team leader to be: a person who makes the most of his unique strengths and thereby creates a better future for all of us. Joe’s experience is relevant here because this post is all about the future. Specifically, it’s about your future, and the future of everyone on your team – and about all the Joes out there in teams large and small, who are misunderstood by their companies, mislabeled, mismanaged, and, in the end, missed altogether.”

And there are still many out-there considered the same

Just for a moment, think of all the people on 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?
  • and what they aspire to?

And now, if you can, answer this: Which one of them has the greatest potential?

Sooner or later in your time 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 Jill 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 two different people doing two different jobs?
  • and what if Jill 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 two are not related at all. Perhaps you’ll think to yourself that Jill 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 Joe) 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 Jill’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.

Then DO IT

Jill, 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 Jill’s inevitable questions out of mind, pull out your 9-box grid, and do your best to do right by her. And her future.

Then simply don’t do it.

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 sterns 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. The lie that people have potential is a product of organization’s desire for control, and their impatience with individual differences. When you think about it for a moment, the notion of a generic quality called “potential” is actually pretty odd. Look around you and you’ll find hundreds of different definitions, but there’s no need to look any further than Harvard Business Review’s very own:

“High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization – more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do”

This seems like an eminently desirable quality. Who wouldn’t want people who “outperform their peer groups,” not just in their current role but “in a variety of settings”; who, in addition to performing with excellence, also “reflect their companies’ culture and values”; and who, all the while, show “a strong capacity to grow”? We all would, of course-high-performing, culture-embodying people blessed with oodles of learning agility and lashings of successitude are the stuff of every team leader’s dreams. And yet, this definition almost immediately rings hollow for you.

First, there’s the feeling that, although you might want such a person in your team, you don’t recognize yourself in the definition. When you think about yourself at your best, you land on specific activities you love, or skills at which you shine-whereas in contrast, this definition appears strangely vague, untethered from any actual work.

And then there’s the part of the description that seems to imply that you can excel anywhere, at virtually anything, “in a variety of settings and circumstances.” Not only is this unlikely, but more to the point, who among us actually aspires to this sort of Jack-of-all-trades-ness? If we were to have this quality it would imply, surely, that we were not unique and distinct, but instead were empty learning vessels, blank slates waiting for our settings and circumstances to define us, adept at learning, but featureless. How depressing.

Everybody have these.

Beyond the disquieting emptiness of this definition, the most damaging inference is that this quality called “potential” is inherent in a person, and that people bring it with them from situation to situation: that no matter what “setting or circumstance” they encounter, those people with lots of it are blessed with a special power enabling them to learn faster, grow more, and achieve more. High potential is the corporate equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket: you take it with you wherever you go, and it grants you powers and access denied to the rest of us. The distinction between traits, which are inherent in a person, and states are changeable in the person. Using this framing, potential is clearly something we think of as a trait – it is inherent in the person, some people have more of it than others, and those who do take it everywhere with them (Although we might question why, if it’s a trait and doesn’t therefore change much, we re-rate people on it every year)

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 Jill, create the future. But:

  • Is there even anything here to measure-is potential a thing at all?
  • Do we 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?
  • That we could throw this hi-po into any situation and his potential would enable him to adapt, and then thrive?
  • 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 we do think this, then we do so in the complete absence of any evidence. Over the last hundred years we’ve wondered whether there was such a thing as general intelligence – the elusive G factor – and discovered that if it exists, we can’t find it. Sure, we can build a test that reliably measures a thing called IQ, but we don’t actually know much about what IQ is – it doesn’t seem to independently predict educational success, career achievement, health, or happiness.” It’s just a score on a test. The best this test can do, it appears, is tell us that, if your test score is very low, you probably have cognitive impairment and will therefore have difficulty learning. So it works as a predictor of problems but not as a predictor or descriptor of flourishing. Likewise, evidence for the existence of general potential is nonexistent. Instead the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. We know that each person’s brain grows by adding more synaptic connections, that each person’s synaptic pattern is unique, and that therefore each person’s brain grows uniquely. Therefore we know:

  • a) that the ability to learn exists in us all
  • b) that it shows up differently in each of us, and
  • c) that while we can all get better at anything, none of us will ever be able to rewire our brains to excel at everything. More simply, we can all get better, and we will all get better at different things, in different ways, and at different speed
Everybody has this chance

So there is no such thing as “having potential”. Or rather, there is, but it doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it doesn’t mean anything beyond being a human. To say that you have potential means simply that you have the capacity to learn, and grow, and get better, like every other human. Unfortunately, this won’t reveal anything about precisely where you can learn, and grow, and get better, or how, or how fast, or under what conditions. Potential, like being human, doesn’t tell us anything about what particular human you are, or what direction would be best for your sort of human in the future. And, of course, if having potential is just being a human, then we can’t rate you on it. We can’t split our company up into hi-po’s and lo-po’s, any more than we can rate you on your human-ness and give the most stuff to those who are most human and the least to those are who least human. This sort of apartheid does terrible things to a company. The careless and unreliable labeling of some folks as hi-po’s and others as lo-po’s is deeply immoral. It explicitly stamps large numbers of people with a “less than” branding, derived not from a measure of current performance but from a rater’s hopelessly unreliable rating of a thing that isn’t a thing. And then this rating of a thing-that-isn’t-a-thing opens doors for some, confers prestige on some, elevates some, blesses some, and sets them up for a brighter future, all while relegating others to a status less than human. How explicitly awful. It is also unproductive. The maximization machine should make the most of every single human within it, not just a rarefied subset.

This notion that some people have lots of potential, while others don’t, leads us to miss the gloriously weird possibilities lying hidden in each and every team member, even the ones who, at first blush, seem to have little to offer the team’s future. If we have in our head a preconceived notion-even, as in the case of the Harvard Business Review definition, a detailed description-of what a hi-po should do, feel like, and act like, then we will cease to be curious about the many possible futures of each idiosyncratic person in our team.

This, certainly, is what happened to Joe’s employers. They had a set idea of what a high-potential CEO should look like, and what a high-potential software engineer should look like, and neither of them looked like Joe. They stopped looking at Joe, became impatient with him, diminished his role, eased him off to the sidelines, and were more than happy when he decided that his most interesting and challenging work lay elsewhere. And that’s a shame for them, because Joe is a pseudonym.

He may be a difficult guy, but he made it.

His real name is Elon. That yellow-pages company was acquired by Compaq for $307 million. The financial-services company, X.com, became better known as PayPal and sold to eBay for $15 billion. At which point you may say, “Yes, but have you seen what he’s done lately?” and reference his fining by the SEC, his joint-puffing on a podcast, and any number of other transgressions that may have occurred from the time of our writing to the time of your reading. And my reply would be, “Yes, but have you seen what he’s done lately?” 🙂 and we’d reference his reinvention of the automobile industry, his re-invigoration of the space industry, and his counter-intuitive alarm-sounding of the dangers of AI. As the New York Times put it immediately after the 2018 SEC action against Musk was concluded, “The Future of Electric Cars Is Brighter with Elon Musk in It.” Yes, he is the spikiest sort of leader, given to impulsive and imperfect actions, but to dismiss his potential is to miss pretty much everything meaningful about him. He may be a handful, and intemperate in his tweeting, but if Elon Musk wasn’t a high potential, then it’s time to admit that the concept serves no purpose.

Yet still you are going to be asked by your company to rate people on their potential, and by your team members to guide them toward ever-more-challenging work. So what on earth do you do? How can you honor your company’s need to get the most from each person, and yet not segregate your team into artificial and demeaning categories, such as hi-po’s and lo-po’s?

In the world of physics, there’s a name for the discrete, measurable, definable, and directional thing that is produced when mass and velocity combine. It’s called momentum. In the world of teams and team members, the same applies. By keeping these two ideas about someone – mass and velocity separate,and by using momentum to describe their combination, we suddenly enable you, the team leader, to do all manner of useful things to help your team members.

First, you reject the apartheid of potential, where everyone is separated into hi-po and lo-po. “Do you or don’t you have potential?” is a question that exists to serve the (well-meaning but misguided) company. But it’s not helpful to you as a team leader, and it’s completely uninteresting and unhelpful to your team members. Because they know it’s not a matter of whether they can learn and grow, but how, and how efficiently, and in what direction. Only certain people have “potential”; everyone has momentum. One team member’s might be more powerful than another’s, or speedier than another’s, or pointed in a different direction, but everyone has some. The question isn’t whether you inherently possess a lot of it or not. Instead, when it comes to momentum, the question is how much of it you have at this very moment, right now.

Second, you convey to them something real: namely, that the speed and trajectory of their momentum at this very moment are

  • a) knowable
  • b) changeable
  • c) within her control.

When you talk to your team member (let’s call him Jeff) about his momentum, you help him to understand where he is at this moment in time, not so that he can be catalogued and categorized and put into one box instead of another, but so that he can understand what paths are possible next. His career is moving on a particular trajectory at a particular speed, and he – with your help – can take the measure of his accomplishments, his loves and loathes, his skills and knowledge, and see where he can accelerate, or shift the path slightly, or even attempt a great leap. Where potential is assumed to be a fixed, inherent quality – he’s a hi-po or a lo-po – momentum is, by definition, always in a state of change. And if Jeff wants to speed it up, or alter its direction, he can.

Third, you help him identify which parts of his current career are a function of who he is as a person-parts he will therefore likely bring with him, situation to situation-and which parts are entirely situation-dependent, and which he could change if he so chose. Given how dose we all are to our own performance, and given that we are sometimes misguided in our career desires, this kind of subtle and specific insight could very well prevent his from making an ill-advised career move. Finally, understanding Jeff’s career in terms of momentum doesn’t just benefit him. It frees you, as his team leader, from the awful burden of having to determine him entire future based on a fiction.

It’s not true – or, indeed, useful – to think that people have potential. Instead, the truth is that people have momentum. Potential is a one-sided evaluation. Momentum is an ongoing conversation. In a world of “potential,” it’s hard to imagine what, exactly, a career conversation looks like once your employee has been shunted off into the lo-po dungeon. Momentum, on the other hand, represents the opposite of “up-or-out” thinking. And it’s the best concept to address one of the key survey items that measure engagement and performance: “In my work, I am always challenged to grow.” Potential doesn’t do that – it doesn’t challenge you to grow. It tells you that you either will, or you won’t. Addressing their potential makes people feel like they’ve been dealt with. Addressing their momentum makes them feel understood. More important, it helps them understand themselves, by encouraging them to consider where they are, right now-not as a point of stasis, but as a unique human being moving purposefully through the world.

This is what every team leader must do.

Our people tools and processes can never compensate for bad team leaders. We like to think so-we figure that, even if your team leader is ignoring you, at least your crowd-sourced feedback will tell you how you’re doing; or that, even if your team leader never asks about your career, at least the talent review will give you something to go on.

Just take action and see what are you made of.

But aside from the flaws that we’ve already seen with these and other common approaches, any large-scale system can never hope to replicate the very particular and specific attention that a team leader can offer. Again, teams are where we live, and team leaders can make or break that experience for us. And rather than investing in systems and processes to provide a fallback in case our managers are found wanting, it’s far better to invest in helping our team leaders do what we need them to, by:

  1. ) getting rid of ratings of “potential,”
  2. ) teaching team leaders what we know about human growth, and
  3. ) prompting them to discuss careers with their people in terms of momentum-in terms of who each team member is, and in terms of how fast each is moving through the world.

This is harder, of course, than buying the latest piece of enterprise software and then imploring our people to use it, but it’s the right hard thing to do. This is what I also do and I will always do it.

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