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The Anatomy of Potential


In a recent post we shared the 20 [Bad] Habits of a HiPo – those pervasive and yet paradoxical habits and behaviours which can be both the reason the individual is recognised as having high potential, and the reason they will struggle to unlock that potential as a result.

While that list was based on the real-world observations and experience of the Grilled Cheese Coaching Co. team, let’s be honest, it wasn’t very scientific. So, as a follow up, we thought we’d look for some quantitative data to back up some of the assertions we made.

We all have “Saboteurs”, and you can think of them as the personification of our self-limiting beliefs, our fears and our judgements

Evidence of Sabotage

One of the benefits of working with large numbers of clients around the world is the opportunity to gather and aggregate lots of data (whilst first anonymising it of course). One of our favourite sources of that data is the Saboteurs Assessment, freely available on Shirzad Chamine’s site and based on the content of his New York Times bestselling book Positive Intelligence. We typically invite all of our clients to take this assessment during the early stages of the coaching engagement, and the results are often both insightful and humbling for the client as they so often seem to hit the nail squarely on the head (“It’s like you read my mind” being a fairly typical response!).

Rather than describe the assessment in detail here, we’d urge you to visit for further information, and to consider taking it for your own benefit.

For our purposes today however, here’ a quick summary: We all have “Saboteurs”, and you can think of them as the personification of our self-limiting beliefs, our fears and our judgements (of ourselves and others), many of which are forged in our early years of development and drive our choices and behaviours in subtle and not-so-subtle ways throughout our lives.  Shirzad has boiled it down to 10 Saboteur personas, and they include familiar foes such as ‘Victim’ (where we tend to play the martyr and take everything personally) or  ‘Pleaser’ (where we try to gain acceptance by overemphasising the needs of others above and beyond our own needs). While we may display some characteristics of all 10, most people have a strong bias towards 2 or 3 saboteurs.

You don’t need to look too far down our own list of 20 self-destructive behaviors to find evidence for all of these pesky critters at play

So, returning to our HiPos, what, we hear you cry, did we discover when aggregating the data from a bunch of these assessments? Well, the results were perhaps unsurprising, but also very telling (especially when you look back over that list of 20 bad habits we observed). Here they are, in reverse order for dramatic effect:

In third place:

  • Controller, described (by Shirzad) as an “Anxiety-based need to take charge and control situations and people’s actions to one’s own will. High anxiety and impatience when that is not possible.”

In second place:

  • Stickler, with “Perfectionism and a need for order and organization taken too far.”

And, in first place:

[…drum roll…extreme close up….more drums…]

  • Hyper-Achiever, who is “Dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. Highly focused on external success, leading to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and loss of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs.”

Boom! You don’t need to look too far down our own list of 20 self-destructive behaviors to find evidence for all of these pesky critters at play, both individually and working together in a heady mix indeed.

As if that weren’t enough, perhaps even more alarming is the saboteur just narrowly beaten into 4thplace…

  • You’ve guessed it: Pleaser!

So, underlying our HiPos need to succeed at all costs, to achieve perfection in the work they do, and to do so with complete control and autonomy, is a need for the validation and acceptance of others through that contribution.

The Human Cost

Ok, so let’s get serious. There is a very real cost associated with all this, often paid for by the HiPo in the way it can negatively impact their important relationships, their health and, again somewhat paradoxically, their long term / sustainable career success. That is why it’s so important to support these critical employees within your organization, as early as possible in their careers – don’t just offer help to the few that already made it to the top. [You can almost think of the C-Suite as the survivors – those that somehow figured out how to manage these personal challenges on their own or, in some cases, are still paying the price as they move on to their next marriage or wrestle with substance addiction.]

In short, it’s time to invest in the best of the rest, where the real opportunity to make a lasting human impact is huge. And the good news is that the upside for you is also huge: You get happy, healthy employees on a sustainable growth trajectory that will create ripples all over your organization as they transform into the future leaders your company so desperately needs. Oh, you also get all of the benefits we called out here, too.

What now?

If this article resonates with you, please share it with others. You can also leave a comment below to let us know you visited and share any additional insights you might be able to offer other readers.

And, if you’d like to know more about how you can unlock the potential in your High Potential employees in a safe, sustainable and scalable way, please visit, or join our mailing list.

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