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Is “High Potential” a label or a mindset?

Posted by Amy Wilson on March 25, 2008

potential.jpgI just finished reading an excellent book, Mindset by Carol Dweck.  This is one of those crossover books that combines social science with stuff you actually care about.  Similar to The Tipping Point (Sociology) and Freakonomics (Economics), Mindset considers psychology in sports, business, raising kids and more. 

Mindset’s main premise is that some people have a fixed mindset and some have a growth mindset.  In a fixed mindset, people believe that their traits and capabilities are set in stone and cannot be substantially changed (I am smart, I am bad at math, I cannot draw, I am a naturally gifted tennis player).  Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset believe that, by applying effort, they are able to develop abilities over time.  

The consequences of these mindsets are far-reaching.  With the fixed mindset, “talented” individuals must prove themselves over and over and are deathly afraid of failure.  Thus, they tend to stick with things they are already good at and avoid challenges.  However, those with the growth mindset are able to take mistakes and learn from them, believing that they are becoming better, smarter, tougher as a result.   

What struck me most was how easily others (parents, teachers, coaches, business leaders) could instill one mindset or the other merely by the use of labels and the phrasing of praise (“you’re smart” rather than “your effort really paid off.”)

I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the dilemmas of measuring and taking action based on potential.  Let’s consider these common questions:

1.  How do you really measure potential?  Organizations struggle to separate potential from past performance.  It is, of course, impossible to completely separate the two.  But often organizations get stuck in the fixed mindset and performance and potential end up being nearly equivalent.  On the other hand, I have started to see organizations include factors like “change agility” and “capability to grow.”  They are essentially measuring whether the individual has a growth mindset.  Exxcellent.  But, what if, as the book suggests, the business leaders have the ability to teach a growth mindset to all high performing individuals?  Is it really necessary to measure potential at all or do we just need to focus on teaching the mindset?       

2. How transparent do you make potential?  Most organizations do not tell people their potential rating, though they admit that high potentials “sort of know.”  They are given unique opportunites, are assigned to a pool, are offered a mentor, etc.  As a result, many organizations are starting to address the label head on.  The key here is in the communication.  Extrapolating from the book, a label of “high potential” could suddenly thrust a talented individual into a fixed mindset.  This causes the opposite of the desired effect.  Suddenly, all of those chosen for success are fearful of failure and stop growing.  As a result, these organizations are communicating high potential as a temporary indicator of hard work and ongoing development. 

Here’s a message that might work: 

“We’re recognizing your effort to grow and learn.  We will reward that effort by providing you more resources to grow and learn.   If you keep growing and learning, we’ll keep rewarding you.”

4 Responses to “Is “High Potential” a label or a mindset?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    Amy, mindset is one of my favorite topics — as you probably noticed, I have the following image posted on my office door I’m such a fan of the concept:

    Click to access dweck_mindset.pdf

    This speaks to me in so many ways since it goes straight to how I personally see potential.

    I think this is really the same point as the “Good to Great” concept of “first who”. The idea that great people will succeed no matter what the challenge, to me is exactly for the reason that they are inherently growth minded.

    I think this growth minded is also related to the idea of measuring “EQ” vs. “IQ” as a predictor of success. It is not what you know but your capacity to continue to learn that is most beneficial to an organization, especially in the long run, as this has compounded interest benefits as well.

  2. Ken Klaus said

    Amy, this post really resonates with me as well. In particular the example you give on how criticism is given. It’s so easy to fall victim to the fixed mindset especially when the feedback we receive is phrased in fixed mindset terms. Even positive feedback can leave us questioning our successes and derail our potential. I know I have allowed myself to fall into this trap on more than one occasion and I suspect I have been the “trigger” as well; giving feedback that I believed was positive and reassuring, but was in fact just fueling the fear and insecurity tied to a fixed mindset.

  3. […] package after she did. Obvious political maneuvering aside, this strikes as having a very “fixed mindset” perspective on the value of ideas. Is the idea itself really the thing of value, and just how […]

  4. […] However, there are downsides too.  The candidates may develop a sense of entitlement rather than a mindset for growth.  It may also de-motivate other “not quite there” candidates for whom there is no room […]

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