The Seduction of Potential

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to turn around a poor performer. Know when to cut your losses and get out.

By Keith Rosen May 1, 2009

It takes a lot of time, energy and resources to find, interview and hire a good candidate. Once you go through that arduous, time-consuming process, you don’t want to let that person go in three months, six months or a year, only to have to do it all over again. So, instead of cutting your losses, you wring your hands about how to improve the employee and get more production out of him or her.

Everyone has a story about an underperformer. It usually starts with a candidate who has a wonderful resume, a great background, stellar references, and a positive attitude and disposition. The candidate has the potential to live up to the manager’s expectations. This candidate seems to be a perfect complement to the new sales position. But then the candidate’s potential doesn’t live up to the manager’s expectations.

During a coaching workshop, I listened to a manager describe how one of her direct reports, a young superstar, became one of her biggest disappointments. And it wasn’t as if she just called it quits after a few weeks and fired this person. Like most managers, she invested precious time trying to turn the person around. The more she invested in supporting and training this person, the more her expectations were shattered.

This manager was stuck.

She didn’t know what to do. This new hire was costing her money, time, selling opportunities and resources every day. What should she do?

Do not be seduced by the ether of potential. We are often seduced by the potential we believe we see in others. We see potential in the people, as well as the opportunities, all around us. We recognize untapped potential in people we have a vested interest in: our children, spouse, co-workers, partner, supervisor and staff. We see potential in new hires as well as veterans.

We believe that if we wait, if we’re patient, if we give them just a little more time, more resources, better training and more attention, they can finally live up to their potential. We believe our employees when they tell us, "Just give me a few more weeks. I’m about to close in on two big sales. Yes, I know my performance has slipped, but as I told you, those personal problems that have been distracting me are no longer there."

Seduction Begins

We agree to give this person a chance. After all, it sure beats the painful and time-consuming process of having to recruit someone new, let alone having to figure out how to cover a territory with no salesperson.

This belief is counterintuitive. It costs you more to keep someone who is underperforming on your team. It costs time, lost sales, money and resources, lost selling opportunities, conflict, and internal problems. Then, you have less time to focus on growing your business and on the performers—the people who make you look great, who are coachable and who want to truly live their potential.

That’s when it happens: The seduction begins. Now you make decisions based on emotions, feelings, hopes and unrealistic scenarios rather than on facts and what is best for you, the company and the person in question.

The seduction of potential clouds judgment. If you’re looking for evidence, just glance at the people on your team. Think about the people you have hired who did not work out. How many people have you hired, when, in your heart, there were warning signs that this person was not the right fit? Call it gut reaction, instincts or intuition. Your internal barometer was desperately trying to tell you something, and you chose not to listen.

Cost of Complacency

Managers often hire people based on potential rather than on what they have measurably achieved. As such, we try to develop the potential we see in them. After all, managers strive to make people more valuable. The key is investing your time in the right people. Otherwise, it’s a time-consuming and exhausting exercise in futility.

You continue this internal battle as you struggle to come up with the right decision. "If he stays, maybe he will turn it around. If I fire him, then what do I do? I have to start the recruiting and training process all over again. What if I fire him and he goes to work for the competition and becomes a superstar? Let’s just wait and see what happens."

Creating extreme scenarios, relying on costly assumptions and making decisions fueled by hope, fear and consequence can keep you from recognizing the truth. The truth is, as human beings we have a tendency to lie to ourselves.

Focus on Processes

Potential is based on something that you have not seen yet and do not have evidence to support. Potential resides in the future, fueled by your own personal expectations. If you are making hiring decisions based on people’s potential, and the candidates haven’t been living their potential by the time you meet them, then what makes you think they are going to start living it when you hire them?

Either people strive to live up to their potential each day or they don’t. It’s a manager’s responsibility to ensure that each person on the team has the systems, tools, resources, training and coaching that allow them to live up to their potential every day.

If you don’t know whether you have made the right hiring decision within the first 30 to 60 days, then you are in trouble. If you think giving the new hire one more chance, more time or more training is the answer, it is not. This is a lie, a justification and a story that you’re telling yourself. Eventually, the pain of keeping that person around will become so evident that the person either quits or gets fired. Consequently, you as the manager have surrendered all of your power to act by choice and are now in a state of reaction and in dire need of a new candidate. Inadvertently, you have put yourself in the dangerous position of having to hire a new person out of desperation.

If neither you nor your staff are currently using and leveraging your and their talents every day, then none of you is living your potential. It’s not that you cannot improve. The difference between working off potential vs. lifelong improvement and building a high-performing, collaborative team of self-motivated people is this: With potential, you’re looking for something that you have not yet seen or do not have evidence of; with lifelong improvement, you’re working with a known quantity that supports your belief in turning this person around. What state are you operating in with your team?

The real problem: Managers wind up collapsing potential with possibility. So, what truly seduces you is the potential of possibility.

The uncertainty, the unknown and the fear paralyze managers who have to make the decision whether to terminate someone or invest the time in turning him or her around. Managers rely more on their fear-based reactions than on facts.

Having certainty and confidence in people, supported by evidence, is a healthier, more productive model when creating new possibilities. This is what I refer to as authentic human potential. You get this certainty by measuring actual performance in a structured program that holds people accountable daily and weekly. You no longer have to make the decision to keep them or terminate them. Underperformers will make that decision for you, based on the defined set of criteria and measurable action steps they need to take to demonstrate their commitment to their position and to dramatically improve their performance.

If you are responsible for hiring, developing and managing a team, what process do you have in place to leverage team members’ strengths from the time of hire through the first 30, 60, 90, even 120 days? Would having a 30-day new-hire orientation based on measurable productivity steps and objectives help? Either the new hire is achieving expected results or not. There’s no room for seduction by the potential of possibility, no probation or waiting for the year-end performance appraisals.

Once these processes are in place, you will get back to doing what every manager is destined to do: make talented people more valuable.


The author is an executive sales coach and president of Profit Builders, a coaching and training firm based in New York, He is also author of Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions (Wiley, 2008).

Web Extras

SHRM online newsletter: Managing Smart


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect