International Women’s day is on the horizon as I write. And information about inequality and bias are flooding in. Soon, there’ll be a rush of very well-intended panels and interviews, covering the usual range from “break the patriarchy” to “ladies, you need to do better.” I’m expecting requests for comments; on the pay gap, on how company diversity — including at the board level — will yield “better returns,” and more.
Y’all. I do not love any of these narratives.
What bothers me the most about these narratives? How they put women and men into separate camps. Have and have not. Your fault and my fault. Whatever your political leanings are, I think we can all agree that dividing groups into separate factions is an excellent strategy if you want to start a war. But not so much if your goal is to bring people together.
Plus, these stories aren’t aimed at changing companies or products. They focus on the mindset of individuals.
Think about this for a second. When was the last time you — whatever your gender — were told, “You’re not doing it right” and happily fixed whatever it was the person pointed out? On the other hand, have you listened to conversations about equality and thought, “Yes, I see other people doing that. But it doesn’t apply to me”? I know I have, many times. But I was wrong. It did apply to me.
Is there another way to address inequality?
I think there is. And I think the new narrative involves potential.
You might be raising one eyebrow right now, “What’s potential got to do with inequality?” you say. That’s understandable. But if you play along with me and try this quick exercise, this idea will make more sense. (And yes, this exercise is for everyone.)
- Think of two people, one man and one woman you work with. These two are peers (but your relationship to them can be anywhere on hierarchy — you’re above, below, a peer, it doesn’t matter.)
- Write Person 1 and Person 2 on the top of a piece of paper. Nothing fancy.
- Underneath Person 1, I want you to write down a list of all the woman’s contributions to her company or organization. Where is she skilled technically? How is she skilled emotionally? What’s she an expert in? Does she have some unique intellect? She’s awesome, right?
- Now repeat the same process with Person 2, Same questions — technical skills, emotional skills, expertise, intellect — all that good stuff. He’s awesome, too.
- I’m now promoting you to their manager if you weren’t already. Looking only at what you wrote down, write down two words that describe Person 1 and Person 2’s potential. Yup, as their manager, what do you think they can do in the future based on your list? (Tip: the more honest you were at Step 2 and 3, the better the result.)
- Now answer this: Are you looking at their potential equally?
Potential. It’s such an interesting word. By definition, it means the “latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.” What’s tricky with potential, however, is that it’s the eye of the beholder. We see potential most easily in others when we recognize it from our own experience.
So why then are we surprised that guys, who haven’t usually had the experience of being a woman, don’t see the potential of a woman as easily and readily as they do a man’s?
Why then, are we surprised that a woman has a harder time recognizing peer or superior potential when there are fewer examples of women to compare to?
There’s a whole mountain of thought to unpack there. And if you did the exercise above, you probably recognized the “potential gap,” regardless of your gender.
And if this idea intrigued you, I have an even bigger one for you to noodle on.
We talk about the hard and soft human skills needed to lead, manage, and do our work effectively. What would happen if we also considered future skills — our abilities, powered by potential? We all bring people into projects and initiatives based on their ability to do things in the future — justified by what they’ve accomplished in the past — even if we aren’t hiring managers.
There’s a whole nomenclature and infrastructure out there to consider “what they’ve accomplished in the past.” Resumes, LinkedIn profiles, performance reviews, titles, certifications, the list of ways we account for past skills goes on. What we’re missing in today’s workplace is the language of potential, a language that speaks to our ability to do things in the future.
EXPERIENCE + POTENTIAL = VALUE
So how do you wield the power of potential in a world of inequality? When you see the potential in others, tell them about it. Describe it with as much specificity as you can. You don’t need to be the boss to highlight someone else’s potential. Everyone can talk about it. Imagine if everyone in your organization did.
So do me a favor. Tell the two people in your exercise what potential you see in them. I guarantee you, you’ll be fascinated by their reaction.
And if you want to earn a gold star from the women you work with, do the two-people-list exercise any time you’re thinking about the potential of a woman. In case you’re wondering, yes, this goes for the women this as much as the men.
You’ll hear more from me on this “power of potential idea.” When I’m doing transformation work with people, the power of their potential is, ultimately, what we’re uncovering together.
You, too, have hidden potential. Potential that you — and anyone you’re kind enough to offer “potential feedback” to — can powerfully wield in a world of inequality.
P.S. Gender difference isn’t the only obstacle to recognizing another person’s potential. Race, age, cultural background, you name it, you’ll have a harder time seeing the potential of someone who doesn’t look like you, sound like you, or have a similar upbringing to you. Please remember this.
P.P.S. If you’re curious to learn more about potential, drop us a line. I’m full of questions. Plus, wouldn’t it be awesome to uncover your potential language? Just a thought. :)