Job Interview? Your Potential Future Is More Interesting Than Your Past

Ready to impress a hiring manager with a list of your past accomplishments? That may be a flawed approach. According to studies conducted by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton, people prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others.

From the study’s abstract:

…compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing.

The scientists studied hypothetical situations involving athletes, comedians, graduate school applicants, salary allocations, online ad clicks and admission decisions.

Harvard Business Review has a description of a test scenario involving a job candidate:

…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 with a proven record of leadership ability.

The researchers even went so far as to ask the subjects acting as hiring managers which subject had the more impressive resume. The subjects agreed that it was the person with more experience… but they still preferred the candidate with more “potential.”

In case you think this is just agism rearing its ugly head, the team controlled for age and found that this wasn’t a factor.

The good news is that I never listened to my mom about “fulfilling my potential” so I’ve got lots of it to spare. Do you?

The Surprising Secret to Selling Yourself [HBR via HN]