High-potential employees, or HIPOs, are supposed to be an organization’s future. However, correctly identifying which employees have the most potential is often a difficult task, due to ambiguity surrounding the term HIPO and the fact that most managers don’t seem to believe their organizations’ criteria for high potential are accurate. Moreover, HIPO selection is easily “politicized”: In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Abhijit Bhaduri discussed six ways managers often play politics in identifying, promoting, and developing HIPOs, namely the politics of intuition, self-interest, avoidance, favoritism, ageism, and gender:
In short, the politics of potential can prevent organizations from upgrading their leadership talent and make data-driven decisions an anomaly rather than the norm. Too many times we have seen the CEO’s favorite candidate be put through a formal assessment simply as a way of confirming a decision that has already been made in advance, not for merit.
Our research at CEB, now Gartner, has touched on all of these political dynamics, and fortunately we’ve found some straightforward and practical solutions to the problems identified here. Organizations using best practices are ensuring their HIPOs are managed as enterprise assets and not held captive to the whims of a manager. Here are some real-world examples of how organizations are overcoming the six political barriers Chamorro-Premuzic and Bhaduri identify (and CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can click through the below links for more information on our research):
The politics of intuition occurs when managers “follow their gut” when nominating HIPOs based on their own judgement of employee performance and future capability. Instead, all managers within an organization should have standardized, clear, and business-relevant criteria to identify HIPOs. CEB recommends evaluating employees for potential against three key characteristics: Ability, aspiration, and engagement. Critically, managers need to be involved in validating the details of these criteria to ensure that HIPO they are not an abstract HR concept. Our recent study on high-potential employees shared a real-world practice Black Hills Corporation uses to align HIPO identification to changing business needs, in order to identify the best HIPOs to fill emerging leadership opportunities.
Sara Bean at Workplace Insight passes along a global survey from Korn Ferry finding that 63 percent of employees would rather receive a promotion with no salary increase than a raise without a promotion this year:
One reason for this, the research from Korn Ferry suggests, is that many organizations are not doing an adequate job of creating clear advancement opportunities for professionals. More than half (56 percent) of respondents who did not get a promotion within the last 12 months cited “bottleneck or nowhere to go” as the main reason. Nearly one-fifth (19 percent) said office politics got in their way of moving up the ladder, and while 39 percent said they did receive a promotion within the last year, less than half (45 percent) said they expect to receive a promotion in the coming year. Also, 84 percent said that if they were passed over for a promotion, the No.1 action they would take was to identify the reason and work to improve. The vast majority (88 percent) said that if they wanted a promotion, the No. 1 action they would take would be to have a conversation with their boss and identify growth areas that would enable them to move into the next role.
This finding seems consistent with something we at CEB observed in our study on high-potential strategies last year: HIPO engagement depends more strongly on these employees’ satisfaction with their skill development and career progress than on satisfaction with their compensation. Indeed, failure to provide the right progression opportunities can increase HIPO turnover risk by 15 percent.
(CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read the full study here.)
Office politics is a delicate game: Previous research has found that over-investing one’s time in cultivating alliances and winning the office popularity contest can backfire on employees once their colleagues realize what they’re up to. But what about employees who eschew personality politics and try to curry favor with their superiors by making unsolicited innovations that help their organization operate more efficiently? Surely that’s a better way to get ahead, no?
That’s not always the case, a recent study found. At the Harvard Business Review, Andreas Wihler and Jon M. Jachimowicz describe the study, co-authored by Wihler, which found that employees who take the initiative to push change often receive scorn rather than credit from their colleagues and managers:
Whether proactivity was perceived as helpful or obnoxious hinged on employees’ levels of political skill. Those with more political skill were also more accurate in their perception of how much their organizations valued proactivity, while employees lower in political skill were essentially “blind” to the opportunities they faced – no matter how many cues the organization offered that proactivity would be rewarded. Employees low in political skill were also more likely to behave proactively when the organization didn’t favor it.
Going over some new research on the impact analytics has had on their clients, EY’s Chris McShea, Dan Oakley, and Chris Mazzei write at the Harvard Business Review that “efforts to adopt analytics upset the balance of power in the C-suite, and this shift often had a negative impact on analytics initiatives”:
Shaped by history, personalities, and events, levels of influence the members of the C-suite were not all equal. But in order to function effectively, the rivalries and politics had evolved to a tacit equilibrium. While skirmishes occurred constantly on recurring allocation matters (i.e., budgets and plans), the balance of power proved to be quite resilient. This benefited these organizations in many ways, including providing a stable direction for employees.
But the commitment to advanced analytics disrupted this equilibrium. Since there was no natural owner of analytics within the traditional organizational structure, multiple executives competed hard to own the new capability. While not every C-suite member wanted to manage such a high-stakes opportunity, the most powerful members were eager to oversee an influential new pool of talent and command more time on the board’s agenda. With the exception of the “winner,” a feeling of vulnerability settled over the other executive team members when the analysis conducted by the analytics group revealed inefficiencies and missed opportunities in their respective functions.
This is another example of why organizations need enterprise leaders.
Jeffrey Pfeffer at Fortune makes the case that “authenticity” has limited value for good leaders:
First of all, authentic leadership is a construct with numerous dimensions, definitions, and measurements, which makes it impossible to study empirically.
Second, one component in many definitions is relational transparency—being honest with others so they know what you think of them. But this is often a horrible idea. A former student of mine once worked at a company that supposedly encouraged employees to share their honest feedback with others. She gave her boss at the time some (constructive) criticism. You can guess what happened next—the boss moved to get her insubordinate subordinate fired. Flattery is almost certainly a surer way of obtaining support than telling others what you honestly think of them. …
In many corporate settings, playing office politics can be as important to getting ahead as actually being good at what you do. Knowing whom you need to befriend and whose bad side you don’t want to be on can certainly make a difference in one’s own career advancement, but it’s also widely believed that good political skills improve an employee’s performance in the workplace. Indeed, particularly in executive roles, politics can be an integral part of the job. But Matt Palmquist at Strategy+Business has discovered some research suggesting that there’s a point of diminishing returns where being too good at office politics starts to undermine a worker’s productivity and hurt the whole company:
The authors conducted two separate studies of early- and mid-career employees (reasoning that people at different stages of their professional lives would have varying incentives and abilities to capitalize on their political acumen). The participants worked in a variety of jobs spanning the manufacturing, service, and social work sectors. The authors surveyed them on a wide spectrum of subjects related to office politics, including their tendency to get coworkers to like them, time devoted to social networking, and how they made themselves look sincere to coworkers. In turn, each participant’s job performance was rated by a formal, company-led evaluation or via a survey of their supervisor and colleagues. The study draws on a proposed psychological principle, introduced in 2013, called the too-much-of-a-good-thing (TMGT) effect. This principle has been applied to areas such as firm growth rate to explain how companies can expand too quickly for their own good. In the case of employees’ political aptitude and their workplace productivity, the effect takes the form of an upside-down U, the authors write — up to a certain point, employees’ on-the-job performance improves with their increasing political skill. But productivity drops off sharply if they enjoy too much influence over their colleagues.