Many of us hope to be the kind of people that can find and free hidden potential – that we’ll be the one to discover a talent that makes great impact, that we’ll be able to play a role in enabling another’s success story. We often want that for loved-ones in our lives – our children, for example – and if we manage people, we’re consistently on the lookout for nascent skill we can nurture and unleash.
We think of hidden potential as a somehow buried skill set or intellectual ability that simply needs to be unearthed, brushed off, and pulled into the sunshine. But if hidden potential is recognized in the unexpected leaps people make beyond their starting place, then unlocking hidden potential is less often about a skill that can be nurtured and put to good use, and more often about character and environment that enables people to do their best work. That’s the contention in Adam Grant’s latest book, Hidden Potential: The science of achieving great things.
Because of my ongoing interest in sharing with managers ideas on how they can support people development, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about this book as an upcoming publication, and Adam Grant and his team were kind enough to send me an advance copy. Adam Grant’s work is always grounded in deep research, and his insights are sound.
While the book is primarily written for readers who want to unleash their own hidden potential, I read the book from a people-developer’s perspective. What could the research tell us about how leaders can draw out the hidden potential of the people on their teams?
Surprisingly, the answer lies in supporting character development and motivation, not in burnishing latent skills.
Building character to achieve greater things
According to Adam Grant’s synthesis, the research shows that people who advance far beyond expectations do so because they demonstrate three important character traits: a kind of determination that allows them to power through uncomfortable learning paths, a kind of proactivity that positions them as human sponges – ready and willing to absorb what their environment offers, and a kind of discipline that allows them to tolerate imperfections in the service of achieving a valued outcome. To nurture hidden potential, then, leaders can help people to be – in Adam Grant’s words – discomfort seekers, human sponges, and imperfectionists.
To bolster determination, leaders can shore up the courage people need to face the discomfort that is a natural accompaniment to learning. The idea is not to eliminate discomfort, it’s to ensure that everyone knows that discomfort, learning curves, and mistakes are all part of a developmental journey.
In order to reach potential, three specific points of discomfort related to learning seem most important to overcome, and each of these pain points can be alleviated by leader support. It’s uncomfortable to try new methods of learning and development. (I’m looking at you, online learning.) It’s uncomfortable for people to do the work before they feel ready. (That moment when people freeze up in uncertainty.) And it’s uncomfortable for people to keep trying when they keep making mistakes or failing. (In every hero movie ever.)
In graduate school, professors are fond of telling students to “trust the process” – the message being that while it feels all wrong, students are likely making real progress. Developmental leaders need to communicate that message as well – while also doing what they can to be stalwartly encouraging and to lighten unnecessary discomfort along the way.
To nurture proactivity, leaders can help people explore curiosities and learn to learn – give them support in developing learning skills and provide easy access to quality learning materials. While proactivity is defined by being self-starting, a good coach and exemplary peers can help people to notice what interests them and to make plans to learn more.
Sponges may be relatively indiscriminate in what they absorb, but people need to be taking in high quality information and constructive feedback. The research suggests that people are better off seeking advice (future-oriented recommendations) rather than feedback (backward-looking critique). Leaders can take that to heart and make a habit of sharing excellent resources and providing valuable advice. They can also connect people to coaches who will be inspiring guides.
To foster discipline, leaders can make imperfection psychologically safe. As noted in my recent post, to be free to contribute when there is some risk involved, people have to feel that mistakes and imperfections are (at the very least) tolerated. Leaders need to help people see the lessons hidden in those mistakes.
More than that, though, people need to learn which imperfections are acceptable (perhaps even necessary) and which procedures and tenets must be carefully followed. This is something experts know well – they know where they can flout conventional thinking and how to compensate for having done so. Leaders need to value imperfectionists – people who make great work that isn’t arrived at by following every rule or ticking every quality criterion.
To help people overcome a tendency toward perfectionism that might be getting in their way, leaders can help them to set clear, high goals that let them see progress against their own best rather than worrying about achieving perfection against some standard.
One niggling concern about these findings is that the development of character traits tends to be seen as a task for growing-up years. But I suspect it can be hard to develop traits like determination, proactivity, and discipline in unstable or disadvantaged environments, so there may be some people in workplaces who don’t quite have the wherewithal to excel that is made possible with these traits. That’s another reason for leaders to double down and do what they can to foster them.
A second section of Hidden Potential addressed how people who rise above expectations find the motivation to do so in the face of challenges. Leaders can glean some potential action items from the list of things people have done to maintain high motivation.
Skill-building often requires repeated practice, which can become boring and tempt sloppy execution. This is especially true when practicing elements of a skill rather than the full task. High achievers have often figured out ways to make the work playful so they don’t mind tackling it. L&D professionals may recognize that as a form of gamification, but while part of the point is to take the drudgery out of practice, the main point is to practice critical skills in a way that builds muscle memory (even if the muscle is their brain) and that mimics authentic work in some way. To bolster motivation, leaders can help to define playful challenges.
When people are on a long learning path, it’s natural to get stalled along the way. Leaders can help people keep themselves motivated by ensuring they have a good compass to know where they stand and where the destination lays. In addition, leaders can suggest helpful guides for all or part of the journey – mentors, peers, experts, etc. who can both direct and encourage.
Self-motivation doesn’t have to be attempted alone. People pull themselves through difficult challenges by buddying up with other people who can be co-learners, cheerleaders, and peer teachers. It doesn’t always work for leaders to attempt to force this kind of camaraderie, but they can introduce potential co-learners to each other, encourage group study when it’s happening, give the group resources as needed, or just get out of the way.
Providing opportunity for everyone
The last section of Hidden Potential spoke to systems of opportunity, primarily in the educational realm. Still, the issues that were raised – over-evaluating (and valuing the wrong measures), providing resources only to “high potentials,” and failing to leverage teams – were hauntingly familiar. It struck me that if we continue to believe that hidden potential rests in individuals rather than in the environment that supports them, we’ll be leaving a lot of talent out of the mix – just when we need everyone at their best to address today’s challenges.
In seeking to uncover what makes it possible for hidden potential to turn into great achievement, Adam Grant sifted through reams of research. I appreciated how he was able to glean and organize all that into insights that can be used as a guide. The many specific stories he included in the narrative illustrated the points in an engaging and enlightening way. (I was especially inspired by the story of Evelyn Glennie, a deaf musician who is a world-renowned percussionist.) Hidden Potential is another solid contribution by Adam Grant, and I recommend it for everyone who wants to release potential in themselves or others.
The big takeaway for me was that nurturing talent is more important than finding it natural-born. When we create the circumstances for everyone to learn and grow, hidden potential will be found in every person. And isn’t that what developmental leadership is meant to unleash?