The Truth About Human Potential That Top Leaders Know

Around 2005, I got caught in the middle of a heated debate among corporate leaders. Now, over ten years later, I wish I could go back in time, because some recent research would help determine who was right and who was wrong.

I was sitting at a lunch table at a conference and a debate broke out about the human potential to change. Half the table supported the idea that people had an immense capacity to change. One of the more extreme supporters of this idea believed that people could become anything they put their mind to. The other half, who considered themselves the realists, believed that the talents people have are fixed—they have them or they don’t.

Tangled Up

The debate got pretty heated, and tangled. One of the change supporters gave her own personal story as evidence—a story about growing up poor and doing badly at school and then going on to get a scholarship at an IVY league school and working her way up to a VP position at a large company. One of the fixed supporters argued that the story was evidence of her innate talent—and that while her circumstances changed, she didn’t really change. She always had the capacity to become successful.

As the debate raged on, it became clear that the beliefs each leader had informed their leadership philosophy. The change supporters were more likely to invest in training, coaching, and mentoring, and to bring on people they thought had potential. The fixed supporters were more likely to hire people who had already proven themselves to be stars, and to spend less time and effort developing people, preferring to quickly weed out anyone who wasn’t performing.

Who Was Right?

It would have been nice to know who among these leaders had the most successful team, and which leadership approach typically resulted in higher-performing teams. Do the change supporters waste too many resources on developing people who don’t realize their potential? Do the fixed supporters waste resources hunting for superstars while failing to bring out the best in their people?

In the ten years since this debate, researchers have been exploring several areas that help point to what leadership approach is most likely to work best.

Mindset Matters

One of those areas is on the impact of different mindsets on performance. Carol Dweck, a psychologist and Stanford University, has shown that how we think about human potential influences the performance levels we can achieve. As Dweck puts it, there are two essential mindsets. People with a Fixed Mindset are like half the leaders I described above. They believe that we can’t change who we are. People with a Growth Mindset are like the other half, believing that people can do better with effort.

Dweck has done extensive research on the impact of these two mindsets on students. As she wrote recently in Education Week, “students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).”

Don’t Tell People They’re Smart

As Dweck warns, one sure-fire way to instil a fixed mindset in children is to tell them they’re smart (I’m constantly catching myself with my daughter on this one). The reasoning is, when you tell someone they’re smart, you encourage them to avoid challenging things that have the potential to make them look not-so-smart, stunting their development. Business Insider recently quoted Dweck saying, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

Plastic Brain

Dweck’s research is in line with the exploration of neuroplasticity, which shows that our brain has the ability to change and develop over time, even during adulthood. We now know that something like one’s IQ is actually quite flexible, and as LiveScience has reported, can fluctuate as much as 20 points one way or the other.

Given all this research, it seems that the so-called realists aren’t giving human beings enough credit and are likely missing out on opportunities to raise the performance of their people. So, does this mean we hand the debate win over to the leaders who embraced the human potential to change? Well, not so fast…

How We Are Built

There’s another line of research we have to reckon with, and that’s the research into who we are and how we are built. You could think of this as the core attributes that make us tick. For example, traits like how open we are to new experiences or how well we tolerate stress are part of who we are. They’re core attributes. So, how changeable are these? If you have someone on your team who reacts badly to stress, is it possible for them to one day easily shrug off the things that used to bother them? What about someone who prefers traditional concepts and familiar things, could they develop into someone who pursues creative ideas and novelty? What about that person who gets things done when you ask them, but rarely takes initiative? Will you ever be able to give them more rope?

Wiggle Room

Science of Us recently reported on the latest research into these questions, and the upshot appears to be that, although we change a lot before we reach adulthood, our core attributes are relatively stable once we hit 30 or so. The article argues that there’s some wiggle room, some possibility for slight changes, but we are mostly stuck with our basic traits. As behavioral scientist Paul T. Costa Jr. puts it, “What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.”

According to the neuroscientists doing this research, the reason for the stability in adulthood is that we come into this world with half of who are determined by our genes. The other half is influenced by core life experiences, and by the time we hit the fourth decade, we’re essentially set in our ways. And there’s evidence that if we do act out of character, it can provoke a stress reaction—which makes people return to who they really are.

And the Winner Is…

When we consider this research into who we are along with the research into the impact of mindset on performance levels, we can begin to answer what leadership approach is likely to deliver the best results. My take: the leader who adopts and encourages a growth mindset in their team, but who also puts people into roles that fit who they are and that play to their natural strengths, is the leader most likely to build the best team. I can’t remember her name, but I do recall one woman at that lunch table ten years ago who essentially argued this view… and to her, I give the win.

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Jamie Schneiderman and Donald Cowper are coauthors of What to Why, the 20-minute ebook about the fundamental shift in the way leaders build high-performing teams. Jamie is the Founder and CEO of Clearfit, the leader in performance insights. Clearfit’s patented performance insights engine delivers critical missing information that empowers leaders to answer previously unanswerable questions about their people to improve performance. Connect with Jamie on Twitter @jamieclearfit Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and the head of Content at Clearfit.

Donald Cowper

Jamie Schneiderman and Donald Cowper are coauthors of What to Why, the 20-minute ebook about the fundamental shift in the way leaders build high-performing teams.

Jamie is the Founder and CEO of Clearfit, the leader in performance insights. Clearfit’s patented performance insights engine delivers critical missing information that empowers leaders to answer previously unanswerable questions about their people to improve performance. Connect with Jamie on Twitter @jamieclearfit

Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and the head of Content at Clearfit.

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