It's a constant challenge to know how to be the right kind of leader each employee needs us to be to keep them at their best. And although it may be tempting to allow employees to find their groove and just coast, it eventually leads to trouble. Read on to find out why.
Don't Let Employees Get Too Comfortable
As leaders, we are working hard to keep our employees productive and engaged in their work and organization. Followers of the strengths-based philosophy focus on delegating work that is only in an employee's sweet spot. Leaders of millennials may find themselves forced to bias the workload to the tasks the employee finds interesting and motivating because it makes giving positive feedback easier. Although this arrangement may make the leader popular and the employee happier, it comes with some sinister risks.
This is a tricky trap because many leaders feel quite accomplished if they possess an intimate knowledge of what their people are good at and then provide those opportunities accordingly. Others may also feel a sense of loyalty or protectiveness when assigning work to their people, purposely avoiding things they've sensed makes the person feel uncomfortable or unqualified.
But by allowing employees to become too comfortable and reliant on their signature strengths, keeping themselves safely tucked away in their pockets of expertise, leaders are not actually rewarding them. They are in fact delivering to them an active disservice - enabling them to stay in the comfort zone nest, never stretching beyond their own (often self-imposed) limitations.
80% Strength / 20% Stretch
Although rewarding employees with specific projects that will draw from their strengths and involve duties they enjoy doing is still a smart idea, it should not become the norm all of the time. There is an ideal ratio of 80% strength/20% stretch. Employees who are left 100% comfortable may later face their own set of unpleasant eventualities, often struggling when circumstances change, limiting their own opportunities for advancement, slowly fall behind in meeting the minimum job requirements, and may risk burnout or disengagement as monotony sets in.
Start with a Conversation
Leaders can break the comfort zone handicap by looking more closely at any patterns of avoidance and assess what performance areas bring out signs of resistance or insecurity in their people. They then need to start an open dialogue with the person to find out what resources, training, understanding, or big picture may the person be missing that would help make a challenging assignment easier to complete. This also gives the leader an opportunity to clarify or reset any incorrect or exaggerated perceptions this employee may have had about what they deem as "success" in the particular task or job facet. Odds are you already know what they enjoy doing, this conversation can help you better understand what they avoid doing and why. Leaders must be careful to listen closely for the barriers employees face and actively work to remove them.
Delegate for Development
Acknowledge the discomfort, empathize with the anxiety it may create and don't give in. Helping employees see that a stretch assignment's only purpose is not to stress them out, but actually help them achieve their own goals is a good place to start. Then keep these three tips in mind when delegating:
- Development activities should come with added levels of support. As the employee learns, they will have questions. Pre-plan whom they should go to first and what sources are available to them. You may also suggest some "hands off" sources if you know there is a risk of them learning bad habits first. You will need to make yourself available on a predictable schedule so the employee has access to you as they learn.
- Development activities must allow room for failure. Don't assign a super-sensitive, high visibility project to your employee as a stretch assignment. Pick something that has a long deadline that you may have time to review and finalize before it goes public or something with a minor risk if it isn't "perfect." Think about how to paint a picture of success so they know what to strive for. And then be ready to accept less than perfect.
- Development activities need a post-mortem. In today's rush-around world we complete projects, check them off the list and move on to the next thing. After a development activity is assigned, schedule a formal meeting to discuss process, roadblocks, successes and key learnings. It can be as simple as "what worked/what didn't work". Use it as an opportunity to springboard to the next assignment. Assess your employee to see if they are continuously incorporating new skills into their daily work; this is a way to measure their learning agility.
One of the most important questions a leader should continually ask themselves is - are my people growing? And are my people growing because of me, in spite of me, or without me?
To gain the necessary credibility required to create a climate of safety where employees feel safe to open up to their boss about tough topics like insecurities, deficiencies, shortcomings, fear, failure, and confusion a leader must have first demonstrated that they too are seeking out growth opportunities that stretch them in unfamiliar areas. Being a leader who doesn't allow comfort zone handicaps to hurt their team requires that they first (or at the same time) make intentional efforts to get uncomfortable too. Maintaining a healthy level of challenge and struggle is what makes the most powerful teams. This is how a leader builds a team who is qualified and prepared to meet the demands of a thriving enterprise.