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The 5 Pitfalls of High Potential People

Updated: Dec 14, 2018


Why do people primed to do big things fail to live up to their potential?


There are five main pitfalls that afflict high potentials. In each case, high potentials (HPs) take their strengths too far, over-apply them in too many contexts. In other words, they aren’t able to recognize when not to use them.


People tend to repeat the same errors over and over throughout their lives and smart people are no exception to this. These errors represent some of the greatest opportunities to raise your performance. Which are affecting you?


(1) Perfectionism


HPs are successful in large part because they have such high standards. But trying to optimize too many things creates complexity that is difficult to manage. The inevitable result is a lack of clear priorities and over-investing time and energy in unimportant areas.


HPs can avoid this by deliberately shifting from a mindset that everything is important to a focus on the small portion that is most important. The most successful people limit the number of projects they work on at a given time. In organizations, the best people typically work on 5 or fewer projects at a time. If you are in a small start-up or a solo-preneur, it should be fewer because you’re running the entire project, not just a narrow sliver of it.


It’s almost always better to complete one task at a time quickly and well, rather than to advance an array of tasks concurrently.


(2) Overcommitment


Enthusiasm to take on new tasks helps HPs learn faster and perform better. However, overcommitting often turns them into task-completion machines, focused on quickly completing a stream of non-scalable tasks, rather than working on longer-term strategic projects with a high return on investment. Eventually, overcommitment leads to burnout and a gradual, unnoticed lowering of work capacity.


HPs can avoid this pitfall by dividing their projects into Focus, Maintenance, & Storage boxes. Immerse yourself in one or two focus areas at a time. It’s extremely tempting to put more into the focus box, but it leads to worse and slower results. Prove you can focus on just one thing consistently for a single week (at least) before you consider putting anything else in this box.


Do the minimum necessary to sustain the items in the Maintenance category, and completely ignore the contents of Storage category. Set a reminder to rebalance these categories after a few weeks or months. By setting that reminder on your calendar or phone, you won’t leak energy by constantly deciding if it’s time to change the contents of your three categories.


You can’t make progress in all areas all the time. It’s a recipe for being busy yet ineffective. It’s OK to put important areas into maintenance mode for a period of time, such as your marriage, or health. Maintenance mode doesn’t mean neglect. It simply means it isn’t the in the 1-2 focused growth areas for a set period of time. You still do what you need to in maintenance areas.


By sorting areas into focus, maintenance, and storage, all areas will be better over time.


(4) Being Right vs. Being Effective


HPs have strong values and principles. It is important for them to do the right thing. While helpful in most contexts, inevitably there are cases where organizational bureaucracy makes this impractical. HPs can sometimes push too hard on battles that are doomed or that simply aren’t worth the social capital they will cost. HPs often care so much about outcomes that they become emotionally attached.


HPs can avoid this pitfall by strategically picking their battles, employing smart non-confrontational strategies, and detaching from outcomes they cannot control. Focus more on the process of doing the right thing and less on the outcome. Learn from it so you can modify your approach next time. Your job isn’t to make everything perfect. Your job is to make a positive contribution.


If you’re good at persistence and care about outcomes, it’s hard to let go. Let some things go anyways.


(3) Excessive Conscientiousness


Conscientiousness involves the desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. This enables HPs to consistently achieve excellent results, but it becomes harmful when taken too far. By taking on obligations to colleagues, bosses, family, friends, or even society, HPs rarely leave time or mental bandwidth to meet their own basic needs or to highlight their individual contributions. As a result, HPs are at risk of chronic stress and burnout and of being boxed out by self-promoters who may contribute less, but manage perceptions better.


When HPs commit to less, they improve work quality and speed, accelerate Focus projects, and experience more energy and happiness.


When helping others, be careful not to let their problems and goals crown your own goals out. Consider saying “no” and explaining what’s presently in your Focus category. When you say “yes,” consider offering to help in a reduced capacity or for a specific and finite amount of time.


Confidence is about believing what you can do. Wisdom is about knowing your limitations.


(5) Enthusiasm and Control:


There’s a phenomenon I call “The Dog Sled Effect.” On a dog sled, the dogs love to run and pull. They’ve been bread for it and they train for it. But, when the musher, who is directing the dogs, begins to push the sled too much himself, the dogs gradually start to ease off until the musher is pushing the entire sled by himself. This isn’t a conscious effort by the dogs to slack off. This is simply the way systems work.


HPs need to be careful not to be the overzealous musher among their teams. Usually, the transfer of work from others to the HP goes unnoticed by anyone, including the HP. The busier we get working, the less likely we are to stop, look at what’s going on, and ask if this makes sense.


The flip side of this is HPs in leadership positions that burn out their teams.


You need to pay attention to the mission and the people. Most leaders focus primarily on one of these.


The bottom line to all of these pitfalls is that the greater your strengths, the greater the potential for those strengths to be over-applied and cause problems. Develop and use your strengths. But also learn when and how to turn them off deliberately. Your results and impact will grow tremendously.

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© 2017 by MG High Potentials