“Hi-pot” doesn’t mean high on pot, but it should…

For lots of years, organizations who were interested in identifying the next bright stars have used the idea of establishing “hi potential” listings of employees, the people who were thought to be the best, most capable of advancing.  This “hi-pot” list translated into experiential opportunities, participation in educational programs not generally available to others and preferential candidacy for openings.

To the people not on such lists, the existence of “hi-pot” groups can be demoralizing.

By segregating employees according to their perceived future value, the organization is essentially communicating that others are devalued.  The organization is making the equivalent of Wall Street’s futures bet on its people, one by one.  The hi-pot employees represent “long” positions, while the non-hi-pot employees are “shorted”.

This message is not only divisive, it is often the wrong bet.

First, it relies on the appraisers’ ability to accurately assess what someone will do in the future.  Evaluations of human performance by their leaders have been famously inaccurate.  Recent research shows that most performance evaluations are done by people who are inadequately skilled in observational assessment, don’t have enough interaction with employees to get a sufficient sample of the performance and are often not qualified in the professional field of their direct report.

Secondly, human behavior is contextual.  This is one reason why no personality test has been shown to be a valid predictor of human behavior.  The personality-based tests (like DISC, Myers-Briggs and many others), rely on self-report and are not validated against predicted behavior in controlled studies.  Peer-reviewed research in sociology and psychology do not cite or include such instruments.

Human behavior is complex, and dependent upon the situation a person encounters.  How I am at work is nothing like I am while at play.  How I might react at home when I drop a plate of food is much different than how I’d react if someone was trying to take my plate of food.  In both cases, I am in danger of losing my food.  My actions would be quite different.  And I don’t know how I’d behave in a situation that I have never experienced.  I’ll find out when it happens.

Thirdly, when people are told they are part of such an elite sub-group, they behave differently with their colleagues.  They might seem more sure of themselves in general.  They might display a sense of entitlement or privilege.  They might make unthinking comments that appear arrogant or exclusionary.  Or they might be apologetic and concerned that others don’t think ill of them because they are part of a select group.

In response, their colleagues might exhibit reverse-elitism, excluding them from the congenial, close relationships with the rest of the team or company.  This kind of segregation goes on anyway, simply due to the fact that the more accountability you have accepted, the fewer of you there are.  “Senior leaders” are necessarily a part of a smaller group, and the organization knows this, with accompanying and varying degrees of organizational fragmentation.  People usually recognize the validity of this type of division, because most senior leaders are working very hard to accomplish their responsibilities. To assign a select group higher future value, however, it’s like getting promoted before you have to do the work.  And to even have a “hi-pot” group infers the rest of the organization is of low potential.  An insulting message.

At WD-40 Company, we’re all “high potential”.  We believe that significant contributions can come from anyone, at any level, to the degree they invest in themselves and in their work.  We will then invest as well, in anyone who is willing to do that self-investment.  We’re all learners.  We all have the opportunity to earn advancement, by our demonstrated performance, and our willingness to put forth the effort so that we can earn experiential opportunities for growth.  And this can change over time, in both directions.

Maybe we have a Tribe member (as we call ourselves) who is raising a young family and has a working spouse.  They can’t stay after work a lot for educational programs or take experiential trips that mean nights away from home.  For now.  Then when their kids are older, they are more able to invest in their own growth.

Or perhaps a Tribe member works for years to prepare for an opportunity for more responsibility and influence in the company, then must move to another state to take care of their ailing parents.  Life is what happens while we’re making other plans, as it’s said.

We take an individual approach to a person’s development, and a collective approach to inviting everyone to earn advancement.  We avoid the dysfunction that results in even using the term “hi-pot”, else we become intoxicated by the illusion that we’re doing something that helps the organization.

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