High potentials are the future of any company, of the economy and of course the whole of humanity. Every company would love to have them and each one wants to feel specially appointed. Everyone wants them and everyone wants to be one. So what does being a high potential really mean and who does the actual common work?

How many high potentials are there really?

Many human characteristics and thus also candidate characteristics are normally distributed. This includes height, as well as cognitive skills, most personality traits and many other attributes. Of course there are properties that are not normally distributed, for example aggressiveness or clinically disturbed profiles. But many of the properties that are relevant for the selection process and thus the identification of high potentials are normally distributed.

Normal distribution is standardised, what percentage of a population all candidates or all high potentials for example) fall into a property (eg. intelligence) in a specific domain. Example cognitive testing procedures: intelligence tests are standardised so that they have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 points. By definition, 50% are thus above average, 50% below average, almost 16% (+1 standard deviation or greater) are already significantly higher than average and less than a measly 2.5% are located in the actual gifted range. So how is it that everyone and everything is gifted or at least above average?

The “better-than-average effect”

From social psychology, it is known that people generally strive to maintain a positive self-esteem. A means of choice for this is also to see oneself in a positive light. This leads to the so-called “better-than-average-effect”. This is reflected in the following phenomenon: if thirty randomly selected individuals are in one room and the question is asked, “Who has more humour than the average?”, they all will answer the same- themselves. The same works with driving, above average creative ideas or with any other qualities that can be assessed positively. Similarly, parents believe their children are gifted. Another study found that people who are in prison believe that they are more prosocial than the average citizen.

Statisticians argue that not every candidate is a high potential

Getting back to our normal distribution, it can be expected that just 2.3% of all applicants would fall into the high-potential range and at least 16% are clearly above average. Companies need fifty candidates per position to find a true ‘high potential’.

A very bold assumption would be that statistically it would be entirely plausible to assume and accept that it is the vast majority of companies (except for yours of course!) that are entirely average enterprises, where most employees are average (except you of course!) But I think that is absolutely ruled out ….