Think Potential, Think Male?


Already when we set out on our exploration of the concept of potential, I mentioned that danger lurks in ill-defined concepts. The reason is simply the way humans work: give us a fluffy term, and we will fill it with our own interpretations, experiences, and values. Further, it is seldom coincidental what particular interpretations and values that go into those concepts. The usual suspect is ingroup favoritism, i.e., that we tend to like (and judge more favorably) those that are a lot like ourselves.

Potential, no doubt, often represents a fluffy term. As mentioned previously, organizations seldom employ a solid definition of what they mean by “high potential”. There has been relatively little direct research on how this affects diversity and inclusion in e.g. talent pools and companies’ leadership pipelines – but drawing on what we know from prior HRM literature, chances are that it opens up for bias and stereotypes influencing the decisions. The studies that do exist certainly point in a worrisome direction, particularly regarding gender.

Warren (2009) conducted a study of talent management documents and systems, and found that they to a large extent represented male stereotypes of assertiveness and competitiveness. And in a very interesting Swedish doctoral dissertation from 2009, Linghag looked directly at judgments of potential in companies’  internal leadership programs. One of her main findings was that men were viewed as having unlimited potential, and women as having what she called delimited potential: While male participants were perceived as able to take on basically any future management role with the right training, female candidates were viewed as having potential only for specific roles and positions. This, Linghag argued, in the long run amounts to women being held back in their careers compared to their male colleagues.

In other words, there are indications that potential can easily become a gendered term. If we look at research on other HRM practices, such as recruitment and performance management, there is plenty of evidence showing that the less structure and clear definitions are adopted, the more these practices become scenes for bias and stereotypes. Thus, there is good reason to try to counter bias in assessments of potential. Below are some ways of doing this – methods that actually also tend to counter the fallacy we talked about last time; confusing performance for potential.

  • Define the concept clearly – and make sure the definition is used. Even when a company has adopted a definition of potential centrally, there is usually little monitoring of whether this definition is actually used in managers’ assessments  (Silzer & Church, 2009). It goes without saying that compliance to the definition is key to counter discrimination.
  • … and scrutinize the definition for gendered assumptions. Festing, Kornau, and Schäfer (2015) advised companies to go over their talent frameworks and make sure that the wordings are not reflecting a mental prototype of a male person.
  • Make the process as open as possible. van den Brink, Benschop, and Jansen (2010) showed that gender-biased decisions in recruitment were more prominent when the assessment process was not made public within the company. There is no reason why this should not apply to assessments of potential too.
  • Increase the use of methods with less adverse impact. We know, not least from research on recruitment and selection, that less structured selection methods tend to have a stronger adverse impact. Instead, consider methods such as personality and GMA tests, structured case exercises, and well-thought out assessment centers.
  • Train HRBPs to counter bias in calibrations. In most organizations, the sessions where potential is discussed are facilitated by HR representatives, usually HR business partners. In other words, these are key actors in countering both bias and the muddling of performance and potential. Thus, they should receive training in helping managers distinguish between the present and the future, and between relevant and irrelevant factors.
  • Hold managers accountable. According to Henson (2009), one key ingredient in more rigid potential assessments is that managers are given a clear responsibility – ideally, tied to a measure – to “deliver” a diverse enough pool of high-potentials.

As we have seen throughout this series, much of the challenge regarding potential lies in defining the concept and basing judgments on information that actually has a predictive power – rather than on hunches and intuition. By taking on those challenges, companies will be able to make much better use of potential assessments in their strategic talent management.



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