Do People Have Potential? 

April 2, 2019

Do People Have Potential? 

There are many good questions in the world of work but as it turns out, “How much potential does Joe have?” isn’t one of them. Yet time and again, you’re asked to answer it, in talent reviews, or on a nine-box grid, or in some other performance tool—or to weigh in on the ratings that other leaders further down in your organization have suggested. As you do this, you might well find yourself struggling to define what this thing called “potential” is, exactly, and whether you can, in fact, rate your people on it, knowing as you do that your choices will have a disproportionate impact on their futures.

Good Intentions
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 cliché that “Our people are our greatest asset” applies to all of the people in the company. 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 organizations’ 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. And yet, this definition almost immediately rings hollow. First, there’s the feeling that, although you might want such a person in your company, 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.” 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. 

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.

Can You Measure It?
In the world of psychometrics there’s a distinction between traits, which are inherent in a person, and states, which 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.

Assuming just for the moment that potential actually is a trait, the first problem we encounter is how to measure it. If we want to measure a trait, we can’t ask someone to rate your employee on it, because it’s impossible for any rater to be either perceptive enough or objective enough to reach into the employee’s psyche and assign a number to what they see inside her. And in the case of potential, the measurement challenge is orders of magnitude more difficult, since we are asking the rater to rate the employee not on a trait displayed in her current behavior but on a projection, a probability that she possesses 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 the employee will be the very worst kind of bad data. Yet this data will create your employees’ 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?

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 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. 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.

Unique Humans
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 speeds.

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.  If we’re really to help our people thrive at work, now and into the future, these are the questions we need to answer.

The Authors: 

Adapted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Copyright 2019 One Thing Productions Inc. and Ashley Goodall. All rights reserved.

Marcus Buckingham heads all people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute. Ashley Goodall is Senior Vice President of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco. Together, they are the coauthors of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World.