In the past I’ve written (or maybe ranted) about labels, specifically titles and how in the end they’re distractions and take our focus off what matters most – the work to be done. Yeah, yeah, I know there’s a career development and pride aspect with titles, we’ve all been there but in my view life would be simpler without titles. I’ve recently had a similar revelation about high potential programs from an unlikely source – a parenting book. As a brand-spanking new dad I really don’t know the first thing about raising a child so I’ve got a LOT to learn. So I’ve been doing some research and while reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children I stumbled upon this gem about the inverse power of praise:
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”
Research is suggesting that designating a child as smart, gifted, special, whatever you call it, actually reduces their ability to problem solve, learn from failures, and understand the value putting out effort to accomplish a goal. These kids tend to think “Hey, I’m smart, I don’t need to work hard.” Not in some lazy I don’t want to work way, rather, they are fearful of failing and being viewed as not being “smart”. It becomes more important for the child to maintain the “smart” designation than to work on developing new skills where they may struggle at first. Whoa.
Since I’m still in the bottle and diaper changing stage it’s difficult for me to see the application of this tidbit with my child right now. But I immediately began to think about how many organizations, with the best intentions in mind, create high potential programs which typically call out certain employees as “Hi-Pos” (a.k.a smart) and give special attention and opportunities to these employees. Now, I’m not against investing in top performers and the hardest workers. Not at all. Rather, I’m questioning the wisdom of explicitly naming high potentials for one main reason:
- “High Potentials” may be less likely to take risks (and potentially fail). Think about it – you’re a high flyer in your organization, your named a high potential employee with all the perks and opportunities. How likely would it be that you would take on a high risk project with the potential to fail and the potential to lose your hi-po designation? For most of us, I would argue it’s pretty unlikely. More realistic would be to take on a challenging project but one where the risks of an unsuccessful outcome are minimal. If I’m running an organization I want people who constantly take (appropriate) risks and aren’t afraid to fail. It’s in those moments of failure where the greatest insights often arise. I don’t ever want an employee weighing the options of taking a risk versus maintaining their status. You may disagree with me but let me ask you this: Would you rather be a high potential employee or an employee who’s reached your potential? Last time I checked most companies don’t have “Reached Their Potential” programs.
Forget about high-potential programs. For my money, I’d rather have a group hard working risk-takers who learn from their mistakes, know they have to work hard to accomplish their objectives and aren’t worried about losing some arbitrary designation.