I have asked this question dozens of times at seminars and training courses and have yet to get an answer of 100% or even close. Most responses come in the 30% – 60% range suggesting that there’s a lot of ability out there that remains untapped. That’s a pretty strong business case for having effective coaching at work I would suggest. After all, you pay for 100% potential, but how much do you actually get?
But how do people even form a view? On what do we base our estimates? Asked to justify their answer people will point to a variety of explanations. I remember one lady telling me about a member of her team who was difficult and unpopular at work yet who achieved great results as a youth volunteer in his spare time. On another occasion somebody highlighted the many working mums tucked out of sight in mundane roles despite being able to run a household, raise children and run the family finances at the same time. What if work was organised in such a way as to give people a chance to let these hidden talents shine through?
Often the answer is ‘I’ve absolutely no idea what percentage of people’s potential we see at work!‘. We can fairly easily see the results or outcomes of using potential by way of the amount or quality of a person’s work; their performance in other words. But judging how much of their potential was used to bring this about is difficult, time consuming and arguably unnecessary. Unless we want performance and results to improve of course, in which case it’s vital to understand how much capacity for improvement there might be.
I believe there is a compelling case for organisations to spend more time considering potential. Businesses obsess over performance and results and rightly so as this is how we determine how well we’re doing, but in terms of making changes and improving things we need to start thinking in terms of potential; what we could do, just as much as what we have done.
Unfortunately the world of work is not organised this way. It is hard to make a case for retaining an employee who is under performing but whom we sense could go on to great things. Employers understandably hedge their bets and seek to buy proven potential directly from the labour market. Top jobs are to be filled only by those on the graduate development programme. External candidates must have the ‘right’ MBA and so on. But just as with the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results. What people have done is not necessarily linked to what they could do. Nevertheless, we can’t employ people based on a leap of faith or retain poor performers on the basis of benefit of the doubt, but we do need to manage them in such a way as to give them every chance to let their potential come out.
Potential is by definition latent – i.e. hidden or under-developed – and so we cannot ask prospective employees to bring a sort of ‘certificate of potential’ with them to the recruitment or promotion interview. We have, instead, to take a view on how much potential a person may have and this view is likely to be informed by our own beliefs and values and by our own experience at work.
More on this next time.