Einstein is often credited with saying, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
That’s how it works. Once people know you’re a genius, they attribute profound ideas to you, whether they’re yours or not, but who cares who said it. What about the poor fish lying in the grass?
With one sad eye, he watches the squirrels scurrying along the tree branches above. “How did they get up there?” he wonders with his small fish brain. And while he fries beneath a summer sun, other fish dart down the cool river greedily scooping up crustaceans to their hearts’ content.
The protagonist of our story doesn’t need to suffer. He simply needs a nudge towards the river. In my practice, I often work with people who are like fish trying to climb trees. You may have team members who feel this way, or maybe you feel this way yourself.
Nudging a Fish Towards the River
As CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer implemented a tool to assess staff on their potential and their fit with the culture. It is a four-quadrant chart where CAN’T and CAN fall along the x-axis and WON’T and WILL are on the y-axis. If a team member falls in the CAN’T and WILL box, Meyer is willing to invest 120 days to evaluate the situation before deciding on next steps for the employee.
In his words, “That’s a competence issue, and it could be that I’ve hired the right cultural fit for the wrong job, and maybe this person who isn’t thriving at shortstop would be amazing in right field.”
Kat Cole, former President and COO of Focus Brands, said this during an interview with Shane Parrish on The Knowledge Project podcast: “I really believe humans are mostly magic, and we are all just unfinished magic, and we’re more likely to be the fullest extent of our magic if other people see us that way first. And I’ve learned that when I see people for their potential and their possibilities, they seem to live up to that more quickly than when they interact with others.”
Judging a Fish in the Grass
Many leaders are less Kat Cole—looking for potential and possibilities—and more Janet Jackson asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Through a more academic lens, let’s turn to psychologist, behavioral economist, and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, he explained cognitive bias with an acronym: WYSIATI. It stands for “what you see is all there is,” and it describes how humans tend to pay attention only to what we see without considering what we don’t.
As Kahneman said when discussing the idea: “That’s a very difficult principle to grasp: This idea that, ‘What I don’t know matters enormously, and what I can’t see matters enormously.’ There are things that you do not see, and they are important.”
There can be real consequences to the WYSIATI approach to leadership. Talented employees who are cast in the wrong role may get by and manage to keep their jobs, but they won’t realize “the fullest extent of their magic” unless a leader helps them see it, as Kat Cole does. Beyond her anecdotal experience, there is ample research showing people generally rise to meet others’ expectations. When leaders’ expectations are low, a great deal of potential gets wasted at the expense of the organization.
To maximize the potential of their teams, leaders need to realize what they see is not necessarily all there is. This comes naturally to someone like Kat Cole who inherently believes “humans are mostly magic,” but for others, it may sound a bit like having faith. Because all leaders are not wired for faith, it’s necessary to implement tools to help them identify what they can’t see.
The four-quadrant CAN/CAN’T/WILL/WON’T chart used by Union Square Hospitality Group is an effective solution. It forces leaders to think beyond an employee’s performance in their given role to consider invaluable attributes: their desire to achieve and their contribution to the team and organizational culture. It gives leaders a fuller, more robust picture of a team member’s potential and possibilities.
Being a Fish Who Sees Beyond the Trees
Many of the tenured, high-achieving clients I work with have had the experience of being miscast in a role while working for a WYSIATI leader who doubted, dismissed, or derided them. In every case, it’s hard to overstate the impact it had on their confidence and self-image or the period of time the impact lasted. Although I work hard to help clients reframe those experiences, they are toxic, sticky, and difficult to completely eradicate.
Are you stuck in a position not meant for you? If you are, the challenge is to believe in yourself, even when you aren’t performing at the level you’re used to. (Or that you aspire to.) Believing in yourself is the fuel that can help you find a role uniquely suited to your gifts.
Author and family therapist Terry Real said: “Self-esteem is spiritual. It’s ontological. You have worth and dignity as a human being because you’re here on this planet.”
If we believed Real’s assertion, we wouldn’t tie our worth to our performance. We aren’t only as good as the last tree we climbed. We don’t need to be geniuses like Albert Einstein to trust in our value. That’s true for you and every person you’ve had the privilege to lead.
The world needs the magic of the fish and the squirrels just as the workplace needs the magic of every one of us. As a people leader, it’s your job to look beyond what you see, so you can nudge team members in the direction where their potential can be maximized. And as an individual, it’s on you to believe in yourself—to see beyond the trees to the sea or the sky or wherever the fullest extent of your magic can be unleashed.