Employee Potential Does Not Always Equal Workplace Performance

Like a first-round draft pick who turns out to be a bust, some high-potential employees fail to live up to expectations. In fact, 70% of managers have an employee they would classify as high-potential whom they are considering firing due to poor performance, according to a new study by VitalSmarts.

"These high potentials have been successful," said best-selling author and expert in workplace productivity David Maxfield in a press release. "They have strong track records that have gotten them to where they are. But often, the productivity practices they've used in the past aren't up to the new challenges they face at work. As a result, tasks and priorities get misplaced, lost, or forgotten."

The study of more than 1,000 managers and employees showed that the problem runs deep. Nearly 9 in 10 managers (88%) said they have at least one high-potential employee not living up to his or her potential. Employees were even more harsh with 96% saying they have at least one high-potential teammate who regularly fails to meet performance standards.

What makes someone high-potential?

The workplace is, of course, not the sports world. ESPN does not rank employees and high-potential isn't any sort of official term. The managers surveyed, however, named some characteristics that they used to define the designation.

"Exceptional ability related to decision-making skills, technical skills, analytical skills, interpersonal/people skills, communication skills, teamwork skills or time-management skills can make a person stand out as a high-potential," according to the report.

Why do some of these workers struggle?

Managers broke down why high-potential workers struggle. They named three key reasons.

  • They struggle to stay focused on the right priorities.
  • They exhibit a failure to communicate or avoid surprises in their work day or responsibilities.
  • They struggle to meet deadlines.

"These days, we're not only expected to do a lot of work but also manage incoming distractions such as emails, texts, sticky notes or a 'drive-bys' from a boss," said VitalSmarts Productivity Expert Justin Hale in the press release. "In this perfect storm, most of us don't know how to quickly reprioritize current projects in context of the new tasks we just agreed to; or if we should change priorities at all."

What can be done?

This isn't just an employee problem. It's at least partially a management failure. It's also an expensive one as nearly half (48%) of surveyed managers said that this performance gap costs companies more than $25,000 per low-performing high-performance worker.

Fixing the problem is ideally a collaboration between worker and management. Maxfield and Hale recommend a mix of methods designed to keep these high-potential workers functioning at an acceptable level.

They include self-accountability as well as management taking an active role in keeping the employee on task. This includes regular meetings, tackling tasks that take longer first, and making sure management and employees have their priorities in line.

Why is this important?

If a company believes an employee has high potential, it makes sense to help the person succeed. Yes, these workers may take more coddling and hand holding than a more regular employee, but their output or ability to impact the business should be worth the effort.

For the employee, of course, it's important to remember that potential is not the same as performance. If you don't do the work and find a way to focus, at some point you go from high-potential to wash out.

It's in everyone's best interest to stop that from happening. That takes effort from both manager and employee, but the investment should pay off for both parties as well.

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