The flow, a concept developed by one of my favorite psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, matches the popular performance versus potential matrix that many managers use to evaluate and calibrate their employees. For people to be in the flow they need to be somewhere in the middle moving diagonally up. Ideally, this is how employees should progress in their careers but that always doesn’t happen. To keep employees in the flow you want to challenge them enough so that they are not bored but you don’t want to put them in a situation where they can’t perform and are set up for a failure.
Despite of this framework being used for a long period of time I see many organizations and managers continue to make these three mistakes:
Mistaking potential for performance
Performance, at the minimum, is about given skills and experience how effectively person accomplishes his or her goals. Whereas potential is about what person could do if the person could a) acquire skills b) gain access to more opportunities c) get mentoring. We all have seen under-performers who have more potential. In my experience, most of these people don’t opt to underperform but they are put in a difficult situation they can’t get out of. We routinely see managers not identifying this as a systemic organizational problem but instead shift blame to employees confusing potential for performance suggesting to them, “you could have done so much but you didn’t; you’re a slacker.” A similar employee with equal performance but less potential would not receive the same remarks on his/her performance.
Treating potential as an innate fixed attribute
One of the biggest misconceptions I come across is managers looking at potential as innate fixed attribute. Potential is a not a fixed attribute; it is something that you help people develop.
These out-performers who are not labelled as “high potential” are mostly rewarded with economic incentives but they don’t necessarily get access to opportunities and mentoring to rise above their work and a chance to demonstrate their potential and make a meaningful impact.
Fixating on hi-potential out-performers
Not only managers fixate on hi-potential out-performers but they are also afraid that these employees might leave the organization one day if they have no more room to grow and if they run out of challenges. As counterintuitive as it may sound this is not necessarily a bad thing.
We all live in such a complex ecosystem where retaining talent is not a guarantee. The best you can do is develop your employees, empower them, and give them access to opportunities so that they are in a flow. As a company, create a culture of loyalty and develop your unique brand where employees recognize why working for you is a good thing. If they decide to leave you wish them all the best and invest in them: fund their start-up or make them your partners. This way your ecosystem will have fresh talent, place for them to grow, and the people who leave you will have high level of appreciation for your organization. But, under no circumstances, ignore the vast majority of other employees who could out-perform at high potential if you invest into them.