What is human potential? We don’t know. You could say that potential is that what is possible. Or that what is not impossible. But with that not much has been said. We like to see potential as an innate quality. And like every quality, potential is limited. It’s hardly ever zero, meaning that all people have the potential to be someone, to create something, to relate to something.
Should we give a more concrete definition? Let’s try. Potential is the maximum level of functioning someone theoretically could reach based on their physical and mental qualities. In my definition, it’s a theoretical level of functioning.
Do you know people who were so promising but never got anywhere? We all do. They seem to have squandered their potential. And some do that out of personal choice, whilst others seem to have missed the opportunities needed to develop their potential.
But potential requires energy to develop. A rock on the top of a mountain has the potential to develop kinetic energy. It’s the gravity that causes it. But as long as nobody gives the rock a push, the potential is not utilised.
Unlike a rock, people can push themselves and exploit their own potential. People can stretch their potential by going beyond what other people believe they are capable of. But it requires discipline and effort. Nobody will excel in sports without discipline.
A coach once said that discipline is good for us, effort is not. Discipline reduces the need to put effort in something. If you exercise regularly (discipline), you wil not have to put extra effort in losing weight later. The effort compensates the lack of discipline. Of course discipline requires some effort too, mostly in the form of sacrifice. You invest time in one challenging thing (running a marathon), which means you cannot spend time on something easier (hanging out with friends).
We like to think that we are responsible for our own destiny and so too many people think they are responsible for their own development. But even with the willpower to invest time and effort in exploiting one’s potential, most people cannot do it alone. The social (or motivational) context will shape the motivation. An athlete has parents, friends, peers, coaches to help. In an organization, the motivational context is shaped by the leader, the peers and the team members.
To develop this motivational context, leaders need to understand what people need. We all have this need to feel competent, to have autonomy and to feel a sense of purpose or belonging. In a safe and trusting context like this, people will be able to learn, experiment, make mistakes. They do not have to fear punishment when making a mistake. As they develop their competence, they will also be able to take on more responsibilities. A lack of autonomy would kill this drive. People who grow, outgrow limited spaces. The space they have must grow together with them. If not, they will find other spaces that fit.
A sense of belonging and purpose seems to be vital to developing potential. Children learn to walk and ride their bike because there’s a purpose. That purpose might be to be able to pick up things, carry toys, move faster, open doors. Or the purpose might be the parental satisfaction. If you have children, you might remember what you did when the child took its first step. You applauded, you cheered, you cried. Imagine that a leader would do that every time a member of the team would achieve a next level of competence and performance, thus developing potential further?
What you can do.
This is what you can do as a leader:
- Build knowledge about basic psychological needs of people and how you can influence motivation.
- Create a context that is safe enough for people to experiment.
- Scan continuously for (hidden) potential. People will sculpt their job to the potential they have.
- Challenge people by giving them difficult assignments too early, and be available to help. Explore the limits. Check people’s resilience.
- Hire people because of their (suspected) future potential. And start developing as of day 1.
- Don’t mind if someone with potential is hard to handle. Engage in debate and discussions.
- Applaud achievement and progress. Praise people when they go beyond what they were able to do yesterday.
- Be available to discuss progress (give feedback), values, purpose and to offer help during difficult moments.
- Make sure people learn things they want to learn or because it’s meaningful, not because you ask them to.
- Never put a lid on potential development. You harm the person and you harm your organization.
- Encourage people to leave your organization if and when the context you can offer does no longer offer opportunities for growth.
Potential needs a push to develop. And that push comes from within but most certainly also comes from others.