Perspectives on Potential

Topic: Potential, Talent Management
Publication: Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice (DEC 2009)
Article: The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential
Authors: R. Silzer and A. Church
Selected Commentary Authors: Robinson, Fetters, Riester, & Bracco; Dalal & Nolan
Reviewed By: Samantha Paustian-Underdahl

Identifying and developing talented employees is a human resource strategy that can help many – if not all – companies achieve business success. However, with the multitude of theories and techniques currently being used by practitioners and academics, how do you know the best way to identify talent in your organization? Silzer and Church (2009) introduce a new integrated model of potential that includes theories from previous literature and trends from current practices regarding high potentials which can be applied to a variety of settings and talent pools.

Trends in talent management are shifting from using short-term strategies for selecting employees for positions here and now, to hiring employees who will grow with the organization and eventually become successful in a higher-level organizational role. The authors explain that there are generally two types of potential assessed within organizations—the stable traits and competencies that a person already has, and the ability a person has to develop and learn new competencies. Silzer and Church note that within these two broad categories are three components of potential that should be considered in any talent management strategy: 1) foundational dimensions, 2) growth dimensions and 3) career dimensions.

1.    Foundational Dimensions – stable competencies that a person has throughout their adult career. They include cognitive ability, personality characteristics, and interpersonal abilities.

2.    Growth Dimensions – components that facilitate or obstruct a person’s growth and development. These may include adaptability, flexibility and motivation. These traits may be fairly stable across situations, but if a person has the opportunity to learn more about a particular area of interest in a supportive environment, these components can become stronger.

3.    Career Dimensions – early indicators of potential for a specific career area. These will be specific to different careers but may include supervisory skill (indicating potential in a management role) or design and implementation skills (indicating potential in project management).

Selected Commentaries:

The commentaries that Silzer and Church received expanded upon their model for identifying potential. Robinson, Fetters, Riester, and Bracco (2009) addressed an issue many organizations face – what is the difference between performance and potential? They suggest a model of potential in which performance is only one aspect. The first criterion in their model is for employees to exhibit behavior consistent with the organization’s culture and values. Second, employees must consistently exceed performance expectations. The third stage in the model is for employee’s behavior to align with high potential indicators. Finally, an employee should demonstrate a thirst for self-development and be resilient to adversity.

Dalal and Nolan (2009) offer an intriguing perspective on identifying potential—using “dark side” personality characteristics to identify potential failure. They argue that the majority of managers derail before they have the chance to reach their full potential. Achieving employee potential thus depends on the presence of the positive indicators of potential and the absence of the negative characteristics associated with derailment including arrogance, mischievousness, and rigidity.

So, how should you assess potential in your employees? Silzer and Church (2009) believe that building behavioral models of the skills, knowledge, and experiences needed at various stages of specific career paths may be beneficial. These models should include foundational, growth, and career dimensions. Organizations should keep in mind that many signs of potential might be latent because of the context and situation. Employees who are in a position that is a poor fit for them should be moved to a different job situation with more interesting tasks and challenges and supervisory support, before a conclusion is made about their potential. Finally, leaders may consider assessing signs of derailment in their employees as part of their strategy for identifying potential.

Silzer, R., & Church, A. H. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 2, 377–412.Si
Dalal, D.K. & Nolan, K.P. (2009). Using Dark Side Personality Traits to Identify Potential Failure Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 2, 434-436.
Robinson, C., Fetters, R. Riester, D. & Bracco, A. (2009). The Paradox of Potential: A Suggestion for Guiding Talent Management Discussions in Organizations. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 2, 413-415.