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Transparency in High Potential Identification: 5 Reasons Why It Might Feel Threatening

By Tom Skiba, Ph.D.

Tom SkibaHigh potential identification is a standard talent management practice in which organizations identify a subset of individual contributors or leaders who are expected to grow and occupy critical leadership positions in the future. When an employee is identified, it is often the case that he or she will receive preferred treatment in the form of development opportunities and highly valued assignments. Despite the proliferation of these programs, organizational leaders are often resistant to the idea of being transparent about who is and who is not considered a high potential. There is a fear that transparency will damage the culture, make prima donnas out of those selected, and diminish the morale of all other leaders.

Fish out of waterAlternatively, initial research suggests that transparency would improve the retention of high potential leaders and there is little evidence that transparency necessarily reduces morale of those not identified. Organizations cannot afford to let their future stars feel uncertain about their opportunities within the organization.

‘Should my organization be transparent about high potential status?’ is the wrong question to be asking. What you should be asking is, ‘What is it about our organization that makes high potential transparency feel so threatening?’ Here are 5 reasons that might be the case:

1. High potential status is merely a label instead of an opportunity

For many organizations, high potential identification is viewed as a ticket to the top. High performers are identified early on and their brand internally enables them to rise quickly with few barriers. As a result, the status has a high value and a strong influence on the future of employees. However, great (and transparent) organizations have porous walls surrounding their high potential pools. Leaders are continuously reassessed to determine if and when extra developmental resources will allow them to grow and maximize their contribution to the organization. There is no guarantee of long-term status. In these organizations, high potential status is a reward opportunity in which the organization makes a tactical decision to accelerate a leader’s growth through development and challenging assignments.

2. Leadership is defined by perks rather than responsibilities

Many people view leadership in terms of perks, such as the opportunity to have control over decisions or larger stock options. Twenty-first century leadership is less about telling others what to do, and more about removing the barriers that prevent others from being more productive and innovative. Leaders are expected to feel the weight of their followers’ responsibilities, anticipate challenges, and identify opportunities. However, when some leaders are focused on upward advancement, they tend to dissolve their relationships with lower level employees. Great organizations imbue a greater sense of responsibility among high potential leaders to understand and maximize the contribution of other members in the organization.

3. Leaders are cynical about organizational processes

A history of subjective decision-making has rendered many high potential programs ineffective and distrusted. Organizations that rely solely on manager ratings often fail to accurately identify high potential. Without a clear definition of potential, objective assessment and standardized processes, employees simply do not trust that managers trading anecdotal evidence are making fair decisions. In these cases, transparency leads to conflict because the organization’s leadership does not have a process they are confident about and can describe to candidates. Great organizations train their managers on how to differentiate candidates, utilize objective assessment to gain additional insights into every candidate, and give candidates a voice in the process. That way, candidates feel the decisions are fair and gain self-insight from the process.

4. Leaders don’t know how they fit into the long-term strategic plan

Uncertainty breeds scrutiny and discontent. All leaders need to understand how their actions and goals fit into the longer-term strategy of the organization. Otherwise, those not selected as high potentials will anticipate being exploited and seek other job opportunities. Fairness research has demonstrated that when leaders feel uncertainty they will be more critical of processes within the organization. Great organizations clarify how leaders are expected to drive performance in the future so leaders can focus on how they need to develop and perform in the present.

5. The organization has a weak feedback culture

Organizations that do not support candid and effective feedback conversations will have awkward and ineffective discussions around identifying potential. Managers notoriously struggle with differentiating current performance and long-term potential. Additionally, if leaders are not accustomed to receiving feedback from their peers and managers, they may be making incorrect assumptions about their own performance or potential. Discussions around high potential status are not easy, but they seem especially harsh in a vacuum of limited feedback discussions. Great organizations earn the luxury of candid feedback conversations through facilitating those conversations over time. Members trust each other and feel safe exchanging their points of view with the goal of improving everyone’s capabilities.

In conclusion, an inability to be transparent could be a symptom of other challenges within the organization. It is true that transparency about high potential status could become problematic. The answer is not to avoid transparency; rather, identify the factors that make it threatening to organizational members and initiate changes to achieve more transparency.

Tom Skiba, Ph.D. is a consultant for DDI's Talent Diagnostic Solutions.

Posted: 19 Jul, 2016,
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