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By Jacob Davidson
February 24, 2015
trophy with crack in it
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

Conventional wisdom is pretty clear on how to get ahead in one's professional life. Rack up accomplishments, collect accolades, make your résumé as impressive as possible, we're told, and rewards will follow. That all sounds nice—but it might not be true. In fact, social science suggests, the key to success might actually be to achieve less while promising more.

That's the conclusion of a study by professors at Harvard and Stanford, who found that people tend to favor potential over demonstrated results. The researchers discovered that references to potential, such as "this person could win an award for their work," appear to stimulate greater interest than similar references to actual accomplishments ("this person has won an award for their work"). This tendency, the paper states, "creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing."

The professors demonstrated as much in a series of experiments in which test subjects were asked to choose between the proven and the possible. In one case, participants were asked to rate two job candidates: one with two years of experience and demonstrated leadership achievement, and the other with no experience but high leadership potential.

Despite the more experienced candidate having objectively superior credentials, subjects preferred the candidate with potential. They also implicitly predicted this candidate would be a better leader in his fifth year on the job than the more experienced candidate would be in his seventh year.

In another experiment, participants read two letters of recommendation for an applicant to a business Ph.D. program. Both versions were nearly identical, but one stressed possible talent ("Mark K. is a student of great potential"), while the other highlighted accomplishment ("Mark K. is a student of great achievement"). Once again, the subjects preferred the applicant with potential.

Why are people so drawn to the possible, even over proven results? The researchers suggest it's simply a matter of uncertainty being more interesting than a sure thing. "Our finding is that people find potential to be exciting uncertainty," says Zakary Tormala, one of the study's authors and a professor at the Stanford School of Business. That makes a candidate with potential more stimulating than a safer choice, and often leads to a more positive impression.

Workers can use this quirk of psychology to their advantage by emphasizing their future value, in addition to past achievements, when applying for a job or asking for a raise. "One of the places we've encouraged people to make this happen is in their reference letters," says Michael Norton, another of the study's co-authors and professor at Harvard Business School. References "generally talk about what someone has done," Norton says. "That’s not a bad thing to do, but it’s very important to also talk about their potential." It can be particularly important for high achieving employees who might be more inclined to stress their accomplishments over their continued capacity for growth.

However, the professor notes, the allure of potential isn't unlimited. In the recommendation letter experiment, researchers found that participants stopped favoring potential over success when claims of potential lacked sufficient evidence to back them up. Instead, it's best to highlight a combination of past accomplishments and future possibilities, so no one suspects you're hype without substance. "A mix is critical," Norton explains. "There has to be some demonstrated sense that you've achieved things."

Use it right, and our collective preference for potential can do more than get you a better job. Norton says it could also get you a date. "The classic terrible first date is the man drones on about achievements," the professor jokes. "But if you talk about what you want to do, even if you're not going to get there, it can be more exciting."