There is no shortage of advice out there on how to make a good impression — an impression good enough to land you a new job, score a promotion, or bring in that lucrative sales lead. Practice your pitch. Speak confidently, but not too quickly. Make eye contact. And for the love of Pete, don’t be modest — highlight your accomplishments. After all, a person’s track record of success (or a company’s, for that matter) is the single most important factor in determining whether or not they get hired. Or is it?
As it happens, it isn’t. Because when we are deciding who to hire, promote, or do business with, it turns out that we don’t like the Big Thing nearly as much as we like the Next Big Thing. We have a bias — one that operates below our conscious awareness — leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it.
A set of ingenious studies conduced by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton paint a very clear picture of our unconscious preference for potential over actual success.
In one study, they asked participants to play the role of an NBA team manager who had the option of offering a contract to a particular player. To evaluate the player, they were given five years of excellent statistics (points scored, rebounds, assists, etc.) These statistics were described either as ones that the player had actually earned in five years of professional play, or as projections of how he was capable of playing (i.e., his potential) in his first five years.
Then the “managers” were asked, What would you pay him in his sixth year? Those who evaluated the player with potential for greatness said they would pay him nearly a million dollars more in annual salary ($5.25 vs. $4.26 million) than those who evaluated the player with a record of actual greatness. Potential evaluators also believed their player would score more, and would be more likely to make the All-Star team.
Tormala, Jia, and Norton found the same pattern when they looked at evaluations of job candidates. In this case, they compared perceptions of someone with two years of relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership achievement, versus someone with no relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership potential. (Both candidates had equally impressive backgrounds in every other way). Evaluators believed the candidate with leadership potential would be more successful at the new company than the candidate a proven record of leadership ability. (Incidentally, if you ask the evaluators to tell you whose resume is more impressive, they agree that it’s the one with experience. They still prefer the other guy anyway.)
In other studies, the researchers showed how we prefer artwork and artists with potential to win awards over those that actually have, and prefer restaurants and chefs with the potential to be the next big thing in dining over the ones who have already made their name. In a particularly clever study, they compared two versions of Facebook ads for a real stand-up comedian. In the first version, critics said “he is the next big thing” and “everybody’s talking about him.” In the second version, critics said he “could be the next big thing,” and that “in a year, everybody could be talking about him.” The ad that focused on his potential got significantly more clicks and likes.
And this is not, incidentally, a pro-youth bias in disguise. It’s true that the person with potential, rather than a proven record, is sometimes also the younger candidate — but the researchers were careful to control for age in their studies and found that it wasn’t a factor.
So, since preferring potential over a proven record is both risky and inherently irrational, why do we do it? According to these findings, the potential for success, as opposed to actual success, is more interesting because it is less certain. When human brains come across uncertainty, they tend to pay attention to information more because they want to figure it out, which leads to longer and more in-depth processing. High-potential candidates make us think harder than proven ones do. So long as the information available about the high-potential candidate is favorable, all this extra processing can lead (unconsciously) to an overall more positive view of the candidate (or company). (That part about the information available being favorable is important. In another study, when the candidate was described as having great potential, but there was little evidence to back that up, people liked him far less than the proven achiever.)
All this suggests that you need a very different approach to selling yourself than the one you intuitively take, because your intuitions are probably wrong. People are much more impressed, whether they realize it or not, by your potential than by your track record. It would be wise to start focusing your pitch on your future, as an individual or as a company, rather than on your past — even if that past is very impressive indeed. It’s what you could be that makes people sit up and take notice — learn to use the power of potential to your advantage.