Is “High Potential” a label or a mindset?
Posted by Amy Wilson on March 25, 2008
I 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.”