Want to Excel? It’s About Whether You Pick For Potential or Achievement

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Jun 17, 2014

If you’re promoting employees, advocating for them, or hiring them, your natural instinct is to choose someone with a solid track record of accomplishment.

However, despite the logic of this strategy, new research from Stanford University demonstrates people often prefer potential (over achievement) when evaluating others.

In a series of experiments set in different contexts, Stanford researchers found that high potential can be more appealing than equally high achievement. In general, potential seems to engender greater interest than achievement, which can translate into more favorable reactions.

The explanation lies in the power of potential and the allure of uncertainty: we are often more intrigued by unknown outcomes or mysteries.

Uncertainty can be more engaging

While it seems objectively more impressive to actually achieve something great than to have mere potential to do so, there’s fairly robust findings in the psychological literature that uncertain events and outcomes can stimulate greater interest and information processing — more thought — than more certain ones.

So when potential is being compared with achievement, the uncertainty surrounding potential can make it more engaging, or maybe even pleasurable, to think about. It’s as if people engage more as they try to work through the uncertainty and figure out what the truth will be.

The basic idea is that when all the available information about a person is positive and compelling, imbuing that information with some uncertainty by describing it in terms of potential — “This person could become great!” rather than “This person has become great!” — can get people to attend to the information more and ultimately be more persuaded by it.

But it’s not clear that the draw of potential leads to mistakes. Judgments against accomplishments could be mistakes, but there are situations in which you can imagine investing in potential makes perfect sense.

For instance, where doing so is less expensive, or where a person’s expected trajectory is steep. Perhaps someone’s perceived upside is so great that the possible rewards outweigh the risk.

The certainty vs. uncertainty dilemma

Even seemingly minor word choices make a difference and can have a big impact on interest and engagement.

Participants in one study evaluated a job applicant more favorably when he had performed well on a test called the “Assessment of Leadership Potential” rather than one called the “Assessment of Leadership Achievement.”

Of course there are limits. When the evidence for something is weak — you can only muster a modest case for why a particular course of action is good — the preference for potential seems to disappear.

Interestingly, these new findings run counter to one of the researcher’s earlier work showing people tend to prefer certainty.

In the new research on potential, it seems that uncertainty can get people excited and thinking more. But taking meaningful action (e.g. hiring an employee) might tend to require some level of subsequent certainty that results from that more extensive thought process. At least in some cases, the excitement people feel about potential can outweigh the comfort of certainty.

So, practically speaking, hiring managers should ask themselves if they’re leaning toward a candidate with a lot of potential over one with experience, and why.

The post appeared in a somewhat different form on