The 3 Dimensions of Potential

25 November 2019
3 minute
The definition of potential is not always clear in the workplace and the consequences of getting it wrong are costs in productivity, profit and possible derailment. Potential is the focus of countless books and seminars and is the secret ingredient that every organisation is looking for when hiring or promoting.

It has many synonyms: blessed, exceptional, flair, genius, giftedness – but how can it best be defined? Many will try to sell the idea of a single measure or single important characteristic of high potential, but it can be most clearly defined by three essential factors. Silzer and Church's model (2009) clearly and succinctly identifies three dimensions that help to define potential in a given role.

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Career dimensions 

Career dimensions of potential are specific attributes that lead to success in a particular occupation or job. They tend to be specific skills that can be demonstrated at varying degrees throughout a career trajectory. Career dimensions can be learned and developed through experience – experience is a key part of career dimensions. 

Career dimensions are important for hiring new employees and are typically the first (and sometimes only) consideration during hiring. In fact, career dimensions are one of the most common measures employers use, hence why CVs ask for previous experience and credentials. Younger job seekers are often frustrated that entry level positions require years of experience. Experience, of course, is a good indicator of performance in that specific area, but isn’t always a good indicator of high potential employees. Always ask the question: "What do you want this person to be able to do in the long term?" The key question about career dimensions and employee potential is, "What do we need the employee to be able to do?" In other words, what skills, education and expertise are required for the job? Career dimensions can be acquired and developed, whereas this is less so for the other dimensions. 

Growth dimensions 

Growth dimensions of potential affect potential development and improvement and are relatively stable over time. They can be a combination of internal characteristics of the individual and situational factors. For example, a person who is very interested in a particular area may be more focused and learn more successfully, or an encouraging mentor can improve a person’s growth. 

Growth potential can be partially identified ahead of time. For example, interests, propensity to learn, adaptability and ambition all boost growth potential when used appropriately. It is important to identify because the greatest gap between current performance and potential is bridged or inhibited by growth potential. In the same way a positive mentor can improve growth potential or improve a toxic situation, a damaging leader can hinder growth or exacerbate problematic issues. 


Foundational dimensions 


Foundational dimensions of potential are fundamental, stable characteristics that predict success across the board. They are consistent over time, so are the best measures in predicting both short and long term potential. Foundational dimensions are attributes that contribute to success in any career or job at any time. Intelligence is the prime example as it is generally and consistently useful. Conscientiousness, too, is part of the foundational dimension. 

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Situational factors will only have limited effects on foundational potential. Foundational dimensions are quite stable across the adult lifespan and can only be changed with serious psychological intervention. 

The three dimensions framework informed the creation of Thomas’ workplace personality assessment, the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), authored by Professor Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae. The Thomas HPTI has been designed based on an ‘optimality’ model; this model assumes that a person’s personality traits can be considered ‘optimal’ based on the requirements of a particular job role or position, such as senior executive leadership. To read more about how it can support you in identifying, managing and developing leadership potential in your organisation here

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