Advice You Haven’t Heard on Selling Yourself

Jan 11, 2013
4 Min Read

For several years, I’ve been recommending that people focus on being able to succinctly and effectively highlight their accomplishments because others (i.e. recruiters, managers, partners) will judge them mostly based on their past track record of success.

It turns out that’s not exactly the case.

What You Could Do is Better Than What You Have Done

According to Heidi Grant Harvorson at the Harvard Business Review, when we are deciding who to hire, promote, or do business with, it turns out that we don't like the Big Thing nearly as much as we like the Next Big Thing. We have a bias — one that operates below our conscious awareness — leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it.

In a series of studies conducted by Stanford's Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School's Michael Norton, it is clear that human beings demonstrate an unconscious preference for potential over actual success.

In an experiment related to the workplace, hiring managers evaluated two equally impressive candidates who varied on one factor:  one had two years of relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership achievement, and the other had no relevant experience but scored highly on a test of leadership potential.  Interestingly, the evaluators believed the candidate with leadership potential would be more successful at the new company than the candidate with a proven record of leadership ability. The researchers documented this preference in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions

Potential Gets Their Attention

Obviously, this is totally irrational, but the researchers have a semi-plausible explanation for their findings.  Apparently, potential success is more interesting to human brains than actual success because it’s less certain.  Uncertainty prompts us to think longer and harder about someone, which often leads to a more positive impression overall.

Sweeping Generalizations Still Won’t Work

Based on this research, I do think it’s smart to include several points about what you intend to achieve in the future in any interview-like scenario.  However, I won’t completely take back my emphasis on results.  Rather, in addition to including details on your impressive history, you should also communicate exactly what you intend to do that will directly benefit the person or organization in question.  Wonderful as potential is, you must still be specific, measured, and truthful in your claims.

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