There is no shortage of advice out there on how to make a good impression – an impression good enough to land you a new job, score a promotion, or bring in that lucrative sales lead. Practice your pitch. Speak confidently, but not too quickly. Make eye contact. And for the love of Pete, don’t be modest – highlight your accomplishments. After all, a person’s track record of success (or a company’s, for that matter) is the single most important factor in determining whether or not they get hired. Or is it?
As it happens, it isn’t. Because when we are deciding who to hire, promote, or do business with, it turns out that we don’t like the Big Thing nearly as much as we like the Next Big Thing. We have a bias – one that operates below our conscious awareness – leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it.
A set of ingenious studies conduced by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton paint a very clear picture of our unconscious preference for potential over actual success.
In one study, they asked participants to play the role of an NBA team manager who had the option of offering a contract to a particular player. To evaluate the player, they were given five years of excellent statistics (points scored, rebounds, assists, etc.) These statistics were described either as ones that the player had actually earned in five years of professional play, or as projections of how he was capable of playing (i.e., his potential) in his first five years.
Then the “managers” were asked, What would you pay him in his sixth year? Those who evaluated the player with potential for greatness said they would pay him nearly a million dollars more in annual salary ($5.25 vs. $4.26 million) than those who evaluated the player with a record of actual greatness. Potential evaluators also believed their player would score more, and would be more likely to make the All-Star team.
Tormala, Jia, and Norton found the same pattern when they looked at evaluations of job candidates. In this case, they compared perceptions of someone with two years of relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership achievement, versus someone with no relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership potential. (Both candidates had equally impressive backgrounds in every other way). Evaluators believed the candidate with leadership potential would be more successful at the new company than the candidate a proven record of leadership ability. (Incidentally, if you ask the evaluators to tell you whose resume is more impressive, they agree that it’s the one with experience. They still prefer the other guy anyway.)
In other studies, the researchers showed how we prefer artwork and artists with potential to win awards over those that actually have, and prefer restaurants and chefs with the potential to be the next big thing in dining over the ones who have already made their name. In a particularly clever study, they compared two versions of Facebook ads for a real stand-up comedian. In the first version, critics said “he is the next big thing” and “everybody’s talking about him.” In the second version, critics said he “could be the next big thing,” and that “in a year, everybody could be talking about him.” The ad that focused on his potential got significantly more clicks and likes.
And this is not, incidentally, a pro-youth bias in disguise. It’s true that the person with potential, rather than a proven record, is sometimes also the younger candidate – but the researchers were careful to control for age in their studies and found that it wasn’t a factor.
So, since preferring potential over a proven record is both risky and inherently irrational, why do we do it? According to these findings, the potential for success, as opposed to actual success, is more interesting because it is less certain. When human brains come across uncertainty, they tend to pay attention to information more because they want to figure it out, which leads to longer and more in-depth processing. High-potential candidates make us think harder than proven ones do. So long as the information available about the high-potential candidate is favorable, all this extra processing can lead (unconsciously) to an overall more positive view of the candidate (or company). (That part about the information available being favorable is important. In another study, when the candidate was described as having great potential, but there was little evidence to back that up, people liked him far less than the proven achiever.)
All this suggests that you need a very different approach to selling yourself than the one you intuitively take, because your intuitions are probably wrong. People are much more impressed, whether they realize it or not, by your potential than by your track record. It would be wise to start focusing your pitch on your future, as an individual or as a company, rather than on your past – even if that past is very impressive indeed. It’s what you could be that makes people sit up and take notice – learn to use the power of potential to your advantage.
Although I wouldn’t have guessed it, I’m not shocked. I wonder if part of the reason employers favor those with potential is so they can take pride in having found and unlocked that potential.
I’d be very curious to see some specific advice on how to use these findings to your advantage.
Anastasia Shchepetkina says
I could thank you for the brilliant article, but it would be an understatement, it’s a bomb!
Do you think this statement is always true, or as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in his book “Blink”, if we take “masters”/ experts their internal voice (intuition) will show different results?
I am also curious in seeing specific examples.
Rodney Daut says
If both candidates have a proven track record but one is described as having great potential, it seems that the information relevant to the job is being highlighted better. People only want to know your past when hiring you so they can decide if you will do great work for them in the near future and further into the future. I think telling someone that the candidate’s past experience is proof he will do well in the future is making the relevant claim more explicit and hence more persuasive than giving the evidence without making that claim. In Jumpstart Your Business Brain, Dough Hall found that making a claim more explicit lead to more sales than making a claim that was less explicit. The claim had to be relevant to the customer’s interests though and I think future performance is what we are really interested in when hiring someone.
I wonder what would happen if they compared making two claims about the future – one saying this candidate has great potential and another saying this candidate will do great things for you. I wonder if the results would be different.
Kevin Goodman says
You have an awesome blog! It’s nice to see the empirical work of social psychology offered for optimistic self-improvement.
This post will appeal to all those aspiring into careers wondering how to get a foot in the door without experience as you are in essence saying that experience is over-rated. Nice!
Sam Persis says
I like your blog. However, you should know that a job seeker is confronted with much more challenges than just humbleness etc. For instance, in Scandinavia, I struggle with a cultural feature of Scandinavian people called the Jante Law. The 10 commandments of the Jante Law are:
Don’t think you’re something
Don’t think you are worth the same as us
Don’t think you’re smarter than us
Don’t think you’re better than us
Don’t think you’re wiser than us
Don’t think you’re more than us
Don’t think you’re good at anything
Don’t laugh at us
Don’t think anyone care about you
Don’t think you have anything to teach us
It is nice if you do some research in this. This thing is real. Here is a thesis by KEVIN J. TURAUSKY:
Caleb Roy says
Is this notion in decline? I have read that it is.
Tim Arellano says
Aside from the financial modelling courses london that I attended to, there were also topics regarding self-esteem and how you’ll present yourself in interviews. Knowing the business and/or field is present, but please make sure you’re also present at that moment.