Lie 7: People Have Potential

This is a video excerpt from The Freethinking Leader Coalition, unpacking the seventh lie in Marcus and Ashley’s upcoming book, Nine Lies about Work. To view the full video, read book excerpts, and engage with the authors, join here by pre-ordering the book. To learn more about The Freethinking Leader Coalition, click here.

Of course people have potential. People are constantly learning new things and growing intelligently and emotionally. Your brain will grow throughout your life, so how could I possibly sit here and tell you that you don’t have potential? In business, we even rate you on potential – so how could this possibly be a lie?

In the world of work, when we say that “People have potential,” we seem to think that everyone is walking around with a metaphorical Potential Bucket, and if yours is filled then wherever you go, whatever you do, you have more opportunities to learn, grow, and be effective. Sounds pretty great. Are you a High-Potential or a Low-Potential person? It can make all the difference in your career. Click To Tweet

If your bucket is filled, then you’re called “High Potential” – or a HiPo, for short. Organizations are always in search of a good HiPo, so if you’re identified as one then it really makes your world a better place. You’re given more training, more support, more opportunities – and if something doesn’t go well for you, you’re given more benefit of the doubt. We assume that the more we put into a HiPo, the more the organization will get out of you; so we disproportionately invest in them.

Now if your bucket is less filled with potential – or even not filled at all – you’re called a LoPo, or a NoPo. As you can probably guess, it’s not a great label to be saddled with. If you can’t measure potential, does it really exist? Click To Tweet

Yet if you look at the data, you realize that we’ve never been able to measure potential. We can’t reliably say that you have more potential than any of your colleagues. If all humans have the ability to learn and grow (and they do), then potential is nothing more than just “human-ness.” And to say that some employees are “more human” than others is unhelpful and immoral.

How explicitly awful to cloister opportunity off to an elite few, while preventing others from seeing everything that they could be. There is no such thing as potential, and it is both impractical and immoral to act as though there is.

If people don’t have potential, what do they have? Order Nine Lies about Work and join the Freethinking Leader Coalition today to find out.



  1. Bob Barnes February 19, 2019 at 8:24 AM - Reply

    This is a great topic. When I was listening to this I was thinking, if we used the term potential as most companies do. What makes a person “high potential” verses “low potential”. Maybe the question is, are we focusing on the individuals strengths? If so, how much? So are the so called high potentials that you rate, are they really just people getting more opportunities to work in their strengths verses the others that are not.

  2. Scott Brown February 19, 2019 at 10:02 AM - Reply

    Very disappointing view, especially from someone who espouses the theory of strength based leadership. This sounds like the writings of someone desperate for clicks or attention.
    To say people don’t have potential because you can’t measure it is akin to claiming every person comes into this world fully developed with no need to identify, hone, or utilize their strengths. It’s absurd!
    Every person has the potential to get better at doing something. Whether or not that potential to develop a skill, hone a strength, or practice a talent fits into the organization’s needs is contextual to each individual situation. But it does exist.
    Can the concept of forced ranking employees based on perceived potential be damaging to some employees and employers? Absolutely!!! In a world where resources were endless and time didn’t exist, it would be possible to stop assigning resources more heavily to those who perform better, who have the strengths needed for s specific job, and who are more driven to improve. But resources are limited. Employers who fail to identify, recruit, develop, and retain the people with the talents, skllls, and strengths needed to thrive in specific situations and roles within their organization, are doomed for failure.

    • Meredith Bohling February 20, 2019 at 8:42 AM - Reply

      Hi Scott – we would love to have you in the Freethinking Leader Coalition, because you make a really interesting argument. Really what Marcus is saying is that to say that you have potential means simply that you have the capacity to learn, and grow, get better, like every other human. We can’t split our company up into Hi-Po’s and Lo-Po’s, any more than we can rate you on your human-ness and give the most stuff to those who are most human, and the least to those are who least human.

    • Carey Miller February 20, 2019 at 10:14 AM - Reply

      Potential is a thing, just like IQ is a thing. While we all have potential, not everyone is equal in their ability to tap into the potential and use it. Someone with a high IQ has a better chance of achieving more intellectual things, than does some with a low IQ.

      I don’t see this about one person being more human than another. How we rank someone has more to do with their strengths and capacity in a certain area than value as a human. A 35 year old professional race car driver and a 95 year old wheel chair bound person both have human value. I would put more trust in the young driver when it comes to automobile handling. I might put more trust in the 95 year old in dispensing wisdom. They both have potential (capacity) for different things.

      How much stuff you give to someone based on performance of certain tasks is a function of the market. Whether that is fair or moral is a different issue.

      Faith exists though you may not be able to measure it.

      Just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  3. Steve Schraedel February 20, 2019 at 11:07 AM - Reply

    Marcus, you’re a hero. Thank you for speaking the truth. Where have you been all of the world’s life? 🙂

    Absolutely agree- we all have value- and to say and act as if some people have lots, and others have little, when we can’t reliably measure it, is both impractical and immoral.

  4. Katrina Pacey February 23, 2019 at 5:53 PM - Reply

    This is a great way to stimulate discussion and a timely reminder for business managers, owners and leaders to look specifically into what every person needs to unleash their potential rather than how that person’s already available potential can grow my business. Yes, we all agree that potential defined as the capacity to develop and grow and improve is intrinsically present in each of us, and, as Marcus asserts, it is unethical to use something so subjective as a rater of how we apportion opportunity. We will always divide opportunity between people based on something – I’m hoping that we begin to use language that does not limit the ‘potential’ of our people but rather incentivises the commitment to learning and innovation and willingness to go and do what is required with an attitude of “Yes, I would love to be that person.”
    As leaders, we can take some of the responsibility for the attitudes of our people and look at how we work with those who have taken risks and made mistakes, how we allow and encourage trust and authority, and how we invite accountability without shame.
    Thankyou Marcus for opening the box 🙂

  5. Edward Worthing April 2, 2019 at 10:06 PM - Reply

    As an educational leader who works with K-6 teachers, I see the label of HiPo and LoPo placed on students all the time. I think Marcus’ point is well taken and I wonder if we took the idea and apply it to all students, would we see better performance overall? Do some teachers spend more time and effort with the HiPo students therefore giving them better instruction and therefore better performance? It’s an interesting thought.

  6. Diane Vance April 5, 2019 at 5:08 AM - Reply

    Further to my comment on Lie #5 (Giving Feedback), I am astonished at the organisational nonsense that goes on in identifying “people with potential”, and “fast tracking careers” of individuals. Its all so subjective, typically based on personalities. In my work leading teams I develop (through extensive on-the-ground consultation and observation) a role classification system which articulates key responsibilities, experience, CPD, remuneration and so on – which is available to all team members and typically acts as an aspirational model for everyone, at their own pace. By the time we get to performance reviews, team members are already prepared for discussions and plans, and are then supported to move to the next level of responsibility (which typically includes a mentoring or coaching role to assist less experienced team members). As I said in the earlier post, implementing a self-determing team culture where they drive their own individual and collective performance brings immediate bottom line benefit.

  7. Martin Haworth October 29, 2019 at 1:01 PM - Reply

    I understand what Marcus is saying, but he is misleading with the headline ‘People Have Potential’ as a lie. Of course, people have potential – he even quotes as such in the very last paragraph “…while preventing others from seeing everything that they could be…” (aka they have potential).

    I think what he doesn’t like is labeling as such. Rather like, say, streaming at school, if that denies others the opportunity to shine because they aren’t in the corporate ‘Hi-Po’ list, then yes, ‘potential’ is wrong, but it’s a very narrow view of potential. To say you can’t measure it, doesn’t mean it fails to exist. If so, you could say that about ‘charisma’ or ’empathy’, and a hundred and one other qualities, all equally nebulous.

    The ‘potential’ he is rejecting is the label, not the quality. We all have the potential to be more, and we all explore that every day.

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