Have you ever “given up” on someone before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves? Maybe it was a coworker who saw things differently than you, or a team member you “inherited” who didn’t seem to do their fair share. Perhaps it was a new boss whose management style you didn’t like. As Chief People Officer, I’ve talked with far too many associates who’ve simply given up someone before “that someone” had the potential to grow and prove themselves. When we see other’s limitations and ignore their potential, we allow our beliefs to become a reality—stunting not only their growth, but ours as well. We become so critical of the “seedling” that we don’t see “tree” growing right in front of us!
Sometimes a person is misaligned for a role and a change needs to be made. But more often, human nature is the culprit behind “giving up.” We’re impatient with a person’s slow learning curve; we expect perfect results right away without clarifying clear expectations; we get frustrated with someone’s behavior when they’re not doing the job how it should be done. Such was the case with Greek grammar teacher, Joseph Degenhart, who was so furious with an unruly boy that he demanded the child be expelled from school. He wrote, “Nothing will ever become of you.” The student, as it turned out, was Albert Einstein.
Because of such poor references, Einstein barely squeaked into college. But there, he met upper classman and a fellow physics student, Michelangelo Besso, who helped Einstein get a job and engaged him frequently in scientific discussions. It was during these talks with Besso that Einstein made his intellectual leap that lead to the discovery of atomic power which reframed how we think about the universe. Hardly anyone remembers Besso, but without Besso’s belief in Einstein, the world may have missed out on one of the greatest thinkers in history. Besso saw the tree and not just the seedling.
When we look at a person’s potential—whether it’s a coworker, direct report, friend, partner or child, it requires us to see past the “seed” and envision the mighty tree it can become. Consider how often you see others as trees or just mere seedlings:
- Do you notice people’s strengths or focus their weaknesses?
- Do you recognize people when they do good things or just tend to expose them when they fail?
- Do you encourage people to take on challenges or discourage them from taking a risk?
- Do you allow people to try and fail, or do you correct them at the first sign of a possible mistake?
Choosing to see others’ potential means we accept that a mature tree doesn’t magically appear overnight—it’s a product of growth over time. Chances are that your current success is a direct or indirect result of someone who recognized and believed in your potential—even when you were just a seedling. Perhaps it was a parent, leader, mentor, or friend.
When people choose to see, and communicate the potential in others, they are more likely to engage people’s strengths, unlock others’ latent talents, and strengthen working relationships. There is undeniable power in seeing the potential in others. When one flame lights another, both end up shining a little brighter.