Man sits apart. By Mead Schaeffer, c. 1933. Good Housekeeping magazine?

High Potentials Are Farther From Normal Than You Might Think

E. Forrest Christian Careers 1 Comment

In my post about “Why You High Potentials Get Missed in Your 20s“, Michael Bates commented that “When the curves are so close together, all sorts of mistakes are possible, including a high-potential’s misjudgment of his own potential.”

This is kind of true and kind of not. Let’s take a look at it in more detail.

First, let’s talk about growth trajectories. Most people recognize that growth in mental ability will grow over time for those who at least in the “normal range”. Elliott Jaques studied something different from “general mental ability” (what we call IQ), focusing instead on what is better termed “cognitive complexity”, and which has been studied by several others, including Siegfried Streufert, Peter Suedfeld, John Isaacs, and Brian O’Connor.

To be clear: I’m not talking about “IQ”. Jaques talked about something different. It had to do with who other people would consider a “Real Boss”. You can start at the bottom of the hierarchy in a large company, asking each person “Who is your real boss?” and chart the answers up the organization. People want a boss who can set context and it turns out that this seems to be pretty quantized: there are some discrete breaks and it all appears to be related to how far into the future it takes for your work decisions to come due or demonstrate full results.

It’s true that when we are young, all the trajectories (or “Modes”, as Elliott Jaques called them) are closer together. They depart farther and farther from each other as time goes on. The curves shown in the image are my estimate of the various trajectories. And I should say that although this represents the Jaques and Cason model pretty well, several people, notably those from the U.S. Army, disagree with it. So if you want to dedicate two years of your life in constant training, 4-5 hours per day, totally maxing out all of your psychic energy (think Jerry Rice) then you can probably change your trajectory. Not that it matters: working hard matters more than genius, even if IQ is a major predictor of job performance, especially as jobs get more complex.

CIP progression chart showing Modes, Stratum and growth trajectories

CIP progresion chart for real CIP clients (after Jaques and Stamp) – click for larger

Each of these levels marked “Stratum X” in the ability to add value to subordinates in lower levels. A manager in the level “Stratum 4” will not be able to add managerial value to work done by other roles at “Stratum 4”: everyone will feel jammed up. They are a function of how far into the future you can add value to decisions that come due.

You can also think of each as representing an ability to process a particular type of cognitive complexity, in the Streufert and Suedfeld way.

Each of the bands are labeled on the right as “Mode X“. They are developmental trajectories, showing cognitive complexity changes over time. According to the research of Jaques and others over the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, your own development kind of bounces around within these broad trajectory bands. If you get underemployed, you may look like you’re lower but you still process complexity in the same way, still think out (time horizon) the same distance as if you were working at the right level.

You can’t keep a good cognitive complexity down.

NOTE TO “REQUISITE ORGANIZATION” PEOPLE: This was done several years ago from data from CIP interviews that I had done to measure their current level of capability. And, yes, that’s actually where these people coded. As I have observed several times before, I had some of them looked at by Glenn Mehltretter and Michelle Carter, who trained me. These are pretty solid. I would love to be wrong, for their sakes. But I’m not. High Mode people litter the earth.

Take a look at the left side of the graph, when people are in their twenties. By the time we are 22, there is a big difference in the abilities to process cognitive complexity. People in Mode 7 and Mode 6 are already capable of undoing the complexity of problems at Stratum 3. They can’t necessarily do that level of work readily because they don’t have the requisite knowledge and skills.

(I don’t think that there is a Mode 8. But that’s proprietary….)

People who are in Mode 5 and Mode 4 can undo Stratum 2 level complexity, at least mentally. People in Modes 2 and 3 can undo Stratum 1. People in Mode 1 are still working on being able to enter the workforce because they can’t handle the discretion that you need to when you have to do Stratum 1 work. They can’t unravel the complexity and they can’t see that far into the future.

That’s a pretty massive difference. If you look at Jaques’s felt-fair pay grades, it’s a big difference, too.

So they are closer. But even at this early age in their worklife, they are still very different. They feel very different, too. The higher mode folks are more “scattered”. They have less focus. They often come up with conclusions that they cannot entirely support. Their minds seem to be able act like they will later, but then fall over in the details. Weird but really fun to talk with. Well, fun to me. To most folks probably irritating and grating and irresponsible and reckless and unfocused and ….

Later the differences will be even greater. But they aren’t really “close” except early on in life.

This is similar to the problems that people with extraordinarily high IQs (EXHI-IQs) have. EXHI-IQ starts at around 170 on the new standard score scale. MENSA starts at 132 or so. So more than two standard deviations from MENSA entry and over four SIGMA from normal.

The longer time goes on, the less you’re like everyone else.

image credit: Mead Schaeffer, c. 1933. From Good Housekeeping magazine? Via The Golden Age

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 1

  1. I agree that high mode people are all around. When I was a student and Elliott was around I was never comfortable with his lectures to me on cognitive capacity etc. I felt (and still do) that he believed the world needed to be “lead” by the “cognitive elite” a super brain, super exclusive club of the “mentally chosen”. It ran counter to the work ethic learned from being raised as an army kid and what my NCAA coaches taught me.

    As my career has progessed I’ve run into several people who where clearly higher mode than their current roles, or future roles. Why? For many it was values.

    I ran into a pepsi plant manager many years ago, he could run that plant in his sleep, he was president of the school board, ran the soccer league, coached all his kids in a multitude of sports. Pepsi had identified him before I got there, he refused promotion or lateral moves. He said to me, I’m a christian, a father, husband and a manager last. I like it that way, I want to raise my kids and contribute to my community as a leader. I have no interest in doing anything differently professional, but thanks for asking.

    Perhaps as migher mode guy he made a conscious decision to live his life the way he wanted. I admired the guy for that.

    Since then I have meet several people like that over the years.

    I fired a service manager once and approached one of his mechanics to be his replacement. I said “the value to your family, this team and your career is between your ears not your hands” . As the son of a mechanic, in a family of mechanics, going to management had never been in his horizon or even dreams. He had never imagined not wearing a uniform to work everyday. His humble values put him on that path, I asked him to jump up to higher path. He eventually accepted and has done quite well as a leader and manager. But he was clearly of higher capabilithy than his role.

    I think these higher modes do litter the earth, and I think some choose, intentionally or not, to follow their value system down a different path.

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