Does assessing “potential” work?

There is a trend in amongst talent-focused organisations to look at both “performance” and “potential” when reviewing employees.  Often there’s a grid that maps performance along one axis and potential along another.

So, you can be high performance, but “low potential” or “high potential” but low performance. In some organisations, the positions on this chessboard are also allocated names – so high performance/low potential might be termed a “technical expert” and high potential/low performance might be termed “diamond in the rough”.

But Carol Dweck in her outstanding book “Mindset – the new psychology of success” argues “..isn’t potential someone’s capacity to develop their skills with effort over time. And that’s just the point. How can we know where effort and time will take someone?”  Dweck says “Many of the most accomplished people of our era were considered to by experts to have no future. Jackson Pollock, Marcel Proust, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Lucille Ball and Charles Darwin were all thought to have little potential for their chosen fields. And in some of these cases, it may well be true that they did not stand out from the crowd early on.”

Applying this back to today’s talent management minded organisations – and I wonder if potential is an accurate portrayal of what is being assessed (guessed at even). Surely what an organization is assessing is an employees skills and abilities (now and predicted for the future) against the background of cultural and organizational fit? So, given what we know now about your skills and abilities, and where we predict you’ll grow – we think you have the potential (or not) to grow within this organization.

The approach is simplistic in the extreme – it doesn’t allow for an employee to grow, change or develop over time. Nor, does it contemplate the possibility that the employee is in the wrong job, under the wrong manager etc; and that any of that might have an impact on the “potential” of the employee organizationally and over time.

I wonder what damage has been wrought on employees who have been labelled “low potential”; the degree to which they have internalized this message.  And I wonder how many of the “high potentials” have indeed turned out to be so.

It’s an interesting concept and I would love to hear your experiences of assessing potential; both good and bad.

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Tammy Tansley
I am a coffee loving, energetic human who loves words, bright colours and spots, silly t'shirts and good champagne. Mum to two beautiful mischiefs. Long time wanderer around the world. Author. Blogger. Speaker.
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