The most successful people in history have made some of the biggest mistakes.

Einstein was wrong more than he was right. Steve Jobs got pushed out of his own company. Michael Jordan claims to remember the number of shots he's missed in his career, along with every lost game.

What set these individuals apart, and led them to accomplish so much?

Each of them focused on their potential.

The aforementioned examples, and countless others who have achieved great success in their fields, realized that every mistake is a chance to learn. But more than that, they believed in their ability to overcome those mistakes and discover, create, win.

The thing is, not everyone possesses that inherent belief. Many individuals, including those on your team, lack self-confidence. They're afraid of being wrong. Afraid of taking a risk, of betting on themselves.

But you can change all of that. As the leader, you set the tone. If you believe, they will, too.

That's why the single best thing you can do for any individual on your team is: to see his or her potential.

Creating "Self-Fulfilling Prophecies"

In his best-selling book Give and Take, Adam Grant delves into the research behind recognizing potential in others.

For example, he studies the work of C.J. Skender, an accounting professor who is so good he was given permission to teach simultaneously at rival schools Duke University and the University of North Carolina. Skender has won dozens of major teaching awards throughout a career that's included conducting 600 classes and evaluating more than 35,000 students, Along the way, he's developed a remarkable reputation for spotting talent.

But Skender doesn't really have special vision--at least, not in the way you're thinking. According to Grant, what enables him to develop so many star students is that he begins by seeing everyone as talented, then works to bring out the best in them.

"In Skender's mind," says Grant, "every student who walks into his classroom is a diamond in the rough--able and willing to be mined, cut, and polished. He sees potential where others don't, which has set in motion a series of self-fulfilling prophecies." (Italics mine.)

Skender has helped countless students reach their potential. But why is his method so effective?

Consider this classic study led by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal (which Grant also cites in his book). Rosenthal had students from 18 different classrooms (ranging from Kindergarten to the fifth grade) take a Harvard cognitive ability test, which measured skills deemed critical to learning and problem solving. He then shared the test results with the teachers: Approximately 20 percent of the students had showed potential for "unusual intellectual gains over the course of the school year."

Teachers naturally gave special attention to these 'gifted' students. When students took the test a year later, the 'bloomers' had indeed improved more than the others--their IQ points rose at greater rates, and two years later they were still outgaining classmates.

Nothing special here, right?

Except one thing. As Grant explains:

"The students labeled as bloomers didn't actually score higher on the Harvard intelligence test. Rosenthal chose them at random.

The study was designed to find out what happened to students when teachers believed they had high potential. Rosenthal randomly selected 20 percent of the students in each classroom to be labeled as bloomers, and the other 80 percent were a control group. The bloomers weren't any smarter than their peers--the difference 'was in the mind of the teacher.'

...Teacher's beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies."

It doesn't only work with children. Management researcher Brian McNatt analyzed seventeen separate studies of nearly 3,000 employees working in a wide variety of organizations. McNatt found that when managers saw and treated employees as having high potential, they bloomed.

He concluded that when managers show "genuine interest and belief in the potential of their employees" and "[engage] in actions that support others and communicate that belief", it leads to increased motivation and effort on the part of employees, helping them to achieve that potential.

The point?

Grant sums it up brilliantly:

"Most companies follow [a basic model] when it comes to leadership development: Identify high-potential people, and then provide them with the mentoring, support, and resources needed to grow to achieve their potential. To identify these high-potential future leaders, each year companies spend billions of dollars assessing and evaluating talent. Despite the popularity of this is fatally flawed in one respect.

The identification of talent may be the wrong place to start."

Putting It into Practice

If you truly want to get the best out of your team, see the potential in everyone.

Ask yourself:

  • What are my team members' individual strengths?
  • What sincere, authentic praise can I offer?
  • How can I help them improve weaknesses through appropriate, constructive feedback?
  • What small wins can I celebrate? (At the same time, help team members to see how these small wins are building blocks for larger gains and overall development)

Granted, not everyone will respond to your efforts. But resist the temptation to freeze those individuals in time; people can always change. Continue to provide necessary feedback, work with them, and keep looking for the positive.

Your job as the leader is to inspire. To motivate. To make others believe in themselves.

It all begins when you believe in them, first.