How Playing to Employee Strengths Will Improve Your Organization

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We live in a world where classification is king (there are literally hundreds of shades of blue). This is understandable, given it’s the primary way we humans learn about ourselves, the people, and the things around us. In the workforce, however, clinging onto classifications (like job descriptions, leadership structures, etc.) as if they are unquestionable truths, can stagger the growth and performance of your company.

What’s in a name?

Yes, job titles allow people to understand their roles in an organization. It gives them parameters of what is required for them to be successful in their roles, and helps them describe their responsibilities to external parties. That said, if an employee is performing above average in 75 percent of their role, but failing at the other quarter of their duties, are they a bad employee? Sure, it depends on how you look at it. But I argue no– they simply aren’t being utilized efficiently.

In an interview with Inc, startup founder Matthew Prince of CloudFlare explained his company’s decision to not give VP titles. In the words of Matthew Prince, here are the key benefits of their experiment:

“Roles can easily flip. When you hire Adam, you may expect him to manage Bob. On another project, those roles might need to flip. With limited hierarchy, the best employees for the project can lead that project.
The culture promotes achievement. When the best ideas win, that becomes a “get work done” flywheel that ensures egos can’t get in the way.
The culture promotes fairness. Titles serve to differentiate, often in an arbitrary way, which can lead to perceived or actual unfair treatment. Here, you’re judged by your work, not your rank.
It just works. We have to invent things to process information at this scale. I can’t figure it out, but our team can. If all the ideas came from the top, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

We’re not wired the same

Each person brings a unique perspective to the table. This means that though two people may hold the same job title, their strengths may be radically different. For example, Kate and Todd are both Marketing Associates with the exact same job function. Kate excels at creating presentations and written communications, but struggles in meetings and public speaking. Todd on the other hand, thrives in face-to-face engagements and is a brilliant speaker, yet can’t write content even if his life depended on it. Here you have two solid employees in some aspects, yet they have challenges in other areas. What should leadership do? Spoiler: there’s more than one answer.

A manager can gauge their leadership skills by how they assess the aforementioned question. A not-so-skilled leader would fire Kate and Todd for being inept at their roles. Problem is, now that manager is down two people and needs to rehire and train new people. This results in both time and money losses for the organization. An up-and-coming manager would try to cross-train both team members in hopes they could improve their skills in their areas of opportunity. While Kate and Todd can probably become proficient at those skills, they probably won’t bring as much energy to those tasks and the quality of work will not be as high. A wise leader would understand that they’ll reap better rewards by getting creative and shifting around responsibilities. Here’s why:

Think outside the box

According to a study conducted by Gallup, managers that focused on their employees’ strengths have a higher amount of engaged employees. 37 percent who agreed that their supervisor focused on their strengths saw active disengagement fall dramatically to 1 percent. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of these employees were engaged, twice the average of U.S. workers who are engaged nationwide (30 percent). Imagine if every company in America trained its managers to focus on employees’ strengths, the U.S. could double the number of engaged employees in the workplace!

Change the role and not the employee

Sure, none of the answers are inherently wrong, but which manager stands to gain the most by their decisions? The wise leader. When leaders play to their employees’ strengths, they gain better productivity, engaged employees, and a company that’s achieving its goals. Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t train employees in skills they are hoping to develop (after all, providing professional development is a HUGE win for employers and employees), but don’t force things that don’t fit.  

Marcus Buckingham summarized this concept perfectly in an HBR article:

“Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. The difference? In checkers, all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable. You need to plan and coordinate their movements, certainly, but they all move at the same pace, on parallel paths. In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves… Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack.”

It’s also important to remember that your employees sometimes aren’t even aware of their strengths, so be diligent in recognizing them to bring out the best in them. Gallup’s data shows that simply learning their strengths makes employees 7.8 percent more productive, and teams that focus on strengths every day have 12.5 percent greater productivity. In addition, employees are more likely to simply enjoy roles that utilize their skills, encouraging them to give it their all and stick around.

Work is work

Some rules were made to be broken, and rigidly sticking to the job responsibilities list is one of them. Allowing employees to own areas they excel in is not the easy way out. It’s actually quite strategic. It’s up to leadership to think strategically by placing their people in environments in which they will thrive. In doing so, leaders conquer engagement, productivity, and turnover while improving their operations all in one swoop.

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