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Posted by on Feb 2, 2010

What Unlocks Potential in People?

This is an intuitively, inherently appealing topic. After all, who doesn’t want to see others (or himself or herself) fulfill individual potential?

Unlocked potential is about people playing “full out,” swinging for the fences and working their best and hardest for the biggest results. It’s playing to win, which is a lot different than playing not to lose. The latter is playing safe, minimizing risk, not wanting to ever make waves, keeping your head down, or doing the minimum to get by (compliance).

Sports coaches all take the concept for granted. There’s no question that the name of the game in this domain is fulfill potential.

At a time when most organizations are struggling in some significant way, isn’t it interesting how much we’ve finely tuned the use of capital, land, equipment and other resources, but the human variable is still a fraction of what it could produce?

This is no small matter. Research shows the difference in performance in the knowledge economy from the highest to lowest performers is a multiple of what it was in industrial or factory work.

So what does it take for people to fulfill their potential, and what can a leader do? Here are some keys:

Create safety – People perform best when they feel secure, emboldened and confident. Nothing robs them of this more effectively than when their sense of safety is threatened. If people feel vulnerable, they will not do what it takes to perform most powerfully. They will not take the measured risks needed to break through.

There are many ways to threaten safety, from poorly executed negative feedback, to exclusion to outright threats. Engaging in any of those guarantees people will not perform at their potential. The brain processes information differently when feeling fear.

True support creates safety. This does not mean guaranteeing someone a job will be there for life. It means guaranteeing that you are there to support them through successes and failures, and that the intention of what you do is to help them succeed. When they know this, they are more likely to perform at their best.

Encourage people by recognizing their performance — Noticing and commenting on good or great work helps people repeat what works, and it increases their confidence. If you don’t tell them, they may not know what they’re doing well. Recognition is an extremely powerful motivator. Note that encouragement and recognition have to be genuine. If not, it will be detected quickly.

Understand and accept uniqueness – Some managers and leaders harbor secret wishes that employees would all act and think alike. Wouldn’t life be simpler that way? It might, but it would also be boring. The more important point is that there is something about individual potential that demands room for individual, unique expression. It’s hard to be great by being like someone else. It could be a work style, how communication occurs, the pace at which someone works . . . whatever it is, you don’t get greatness by asking someone to be a copy of someone else.

Understand and support the personal mission – A person’s mission is that same thing as his or her purpose. People acting in support of their core purpose are much more likely to achieve greatness than those who don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. In fact, tapping into the motivating power of the mission provides huge energy to use to succeed. It goes without saying that this is an important hiring factor. It’s why recruiters regularly ask now what a person’s passion is.

Support learning – It’s not just about current performance. It’s also about how others are developing, growing and learning to those ends. If you truly help others to learn what they need to know to progress, they will move closer to their potential.

Hold a great big vision for others – You can call this the Pygmalion Effect, how when someone important holds a big, bold picture of what you could accomplish, you tend to rise to the challenge. All sports coaches consider this so basic they hardly ever discuss whether it should happen – they just do it. An example of this came in the workplace when an employee met her new boss, and the boss asked, “What’s our plan to get you to a GS-15 (the highest level in the federal government civil service structure before the Senior Executive Service). The question floored the employee, who had never even thought of accomplishing such a progression. It got her thinking, though, and she advanced rapidly. (She also never forgot the power of that one question.)

People tend to become what they think of themselves, and managers and leaders, by casting an affirming, positive story of the employee, have a huge lever for performance here.

You might have experienced such a figure in your life. This is the person who looked you in the eye and said “I know you can do it.” What’s more, their conviction in this helped you to see the potential they had identified. It could have been a school teacher or coach, a boss, spouse, or anyone who encouraged you. If you had a person like this, you already understand the power of encouragement.

Be optimistic –There is now a wealth of research supporting the notion that thinking positively has a measurable impact on behavior. While we never recommend blind belief in things that may not happen, we do believe in realistic optimism. That means choosing to believe and listening to the results.

You no doubt have experienced the difference between your own performance when feeling optimistic and when feeling pessimistic. The former generates energy, desire and action, while the latter drains energy and leads to stagnation.

You can choose out which mode you operate with others, and the mood you co-create where you work.

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