Proof Or Potential: Which Would You Pick?

Sep 25, 2013 1 Min Read

Photo Source: Martin Fisch

You’re looking for a candidate to fill a position in your office. You’ve shortlisted two potential candidates and gone through the résumés before deciding to call them.

Both have impressive qualifications but one seems to pique your interest a bit more.

Or perhaps you’re on the other side of the fence. You’re the candidate looking for a job, and you’ve been sending out résumés. How can you make sure that out of all the other candidates out there, the interviewer becomes intrigued by you the most?

When the need to be impressive arises, it is the intuitive action for us to pull out a list of accomplishments.

We bring up our prestigious schools, leadership positions, volunteering efforts, community work. However, that might not be as helpful as you think.

A recent paper by researchers from Harvard University and Stanford University (Zakary L. Karmarkar and Jason S. Jia) has discovered that the potential for achievement is more attractive than the achievement itself.

This creates the tendency where the potential to do something may be actually better preferred to the ability to do that thing itself.

Based on results from several experiments with characters ranging from comedians to athletes and job applicants, the experiments corroborate the researchers’ hypothesis that potential is perceived as more intriguing than demonstrated achievements.

For example, one of the experiments played out a scenario in a hiring context. Naturally one would assume that experience and qualifications play a major factor in this decision.

Backgrounds and qualifications were identical save for one aspect: candidate A had two years of relevant experience and scored highly on a test of leadership achievement, whereas the other had zero years of experience but scored very highly on a test of leadership potential.

Results showed that, surprisingly, participant employers had greater belief in the candidate with potential rather than the candidate with achievement.

Given that the study placed established several measures in place to ensure that the attractiveness was not just a bias towards youth, it presents a reality that is highly counter intuitive for employees and employers alike.

Yet this phenomenon can hardly be considered breaking news, given that multimillion dollar contracts have been awarded to fresh young athletes even before they have proven their mettle on the field. More importantly, how can the knowledge of these facts affect your career-building efforts?

Firstly, we need to understand why it is that potential incites more interest than actual achievement. The thing about potential is that it always leaves room for uncertainty.

The possibility of a negative outcome often provokes the individual to resolve that uncertainty and by doing so, involves a greater cognitive processing. When the result of that uncertainty is promising, the overall impression created is more favourable.

In fact, another paper of one of the study’s researchers (Karmarkar), suggests that “uncertainty in a persuasive message can sometimes give that message more impact.”

But how can this information affect your position as an employee, or even an employee hopeful?

For those who are on the search for the position of their dreams, use this knowledge to sell yourself better at interviews and job applications.

Cover letters and résumés can be restructured to impress your future employer with not just the list of things that you have accomplished but also with what you will be able to achieve in the organisation.

Prestigious educational institutions and high grades are impressive, but turn these traits into selling points by highlighting how your educational experience can translate into skills exercisable in the workplace, and consequently, produce outstanding results.

For example, explain how your major in finance can help the organisation manage its finances better and reduce expenses by 20%, while being an alumni of your university means you have a steady network of contacts in various fields.

And even if you aren’t looking for an opening in the organisation, knowing how to reveal your potential will benefit you whenever an opportunity for promotion or leadership arises.

Don’t just rely on past successes to carry you forward for the rest of your career, but help your employers to understand how previous accomplishments can also bring future rewards for the organisation. That means, whenever possible, look for opportunities to improve yourself.

Build your skills, attend training courses and develop your passions and talents so that you will always be able to present new opportunities for returns. Avoid giving the perception that you have nothing else new to offer; so do your best to protect yourself from being kept in cold storage.

However, the study also presents one more important finding at the end. For those who think that they can promise without delivery, the study points out that potential needs to be backed up by evidence.

The potential successes in the experiments were projected by experts in the field, meaning to say that others, especially those who are more qualified, need to recognise your talent.

Proof of your talent is necessary to gain recognition; furthermore, if you are employed because of your potential, it’s only a matter of time before you have to start living up that potential.

Nevertheless, potential remains an attractive selling point in any resume, interview or promotion because potential always looks at possibilities for the future.

It’s easy to flex old accomplishments, but you’ll only be selling you and your employee short. Besides, who’s to decide when you have reached your fullest potential?

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