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Do Your Employees Use Their Best Skills? (And Why You Should Care)

What's your biggest challenge at work?

Biggest Challenge at Work Commentary are Tim’s thoughts on real-life challenges submitted by readers like you. Want to send us your challenge? Take the Biggest Challenge at Work Survey

“I can't use all my technical IT abilities”
IT Engineer

Recently we’ve been talking about new-hire enthusiasm and self-expression. We were looking for ways to keep new hires excited about the job, and I thought self-expression should be high on the list.

Self-expression can mean many different things. But the most basic way to express yourself at work is by using your job-related training and skills. This IT Engineer clearly feels underutilized and recognizes it as her biggest challenge.

We have more or less discussed her options in a previous post, titled “My biggest challenge is to make my work fulfilling and rewarding.” But she is not the only one who should be concerned.

Job dissatisfaction is as much of a problem for managers as it is for employees themselves. It strips the manager of the much needed employee loyalty and enthusiasm. And it often goes unnoticed until the employee quits physically or emotionally, and the manager feels disempowered or even stabbed in the back.

One thing every manager can do to prevent this very common scenario is to ask some questions. Be curious whether or not your people can use all of their technical abilities. Ask them if they are bored. Or if the job is what they thought it would be. Or what their favorite skill is and whether they get to practice it on the job.

During my ten or so years on the job market, none of my many managers ever asked me any of these questions. And I didn’t ask them why they didn’t. I just quit. Now that I am a manager myself, I can see how this might be an awkward subject.

First, boring or not, there’s work to be done. And we don’t necessarily pay people to be entertained. Second, what if she is bored and unable to use her best skills? Where will that conversation go? Are we just opening a can of worms with no possible solution in mind? And wouldn’t it only prompt her to quit sooner?

Psychology says no. There is a scientifically established fact called the reciprocity principle. It says that when people do something nice for us, we feel obligated to repay in kind. This means that, if a manager offers a sympathetic ear to an employee, the employee will see this as a favor, and will in turn show more sensitivity towards the manager. So, she will actually be more motivated to complete a boring task or to keep her job, because she will see it as her debt of gratitude.

Nothing in psychology is 100% predictive. You won’t know how your employees will respond until you ask them. On average, however, it’s less risky to bring up employees’ job and career concerns than not to, even if our inaction bias tells us the opposite.

It’s a good idea to ask these questions periodically, even if there are no warning signs. Ask sincerely, and don’t always take the first answer. It could be an automatic white lie to save face and avoid the controversy. Wait for what comes next. By doing so, you will be building trust. If you do it right, your employees should start bringing up their issues without waiting to be asked.

But what will you do once they’ve told you? First, never assume that you can’t help. That’s a disempowering thought, and it communicates disempowerment to the employee. You can do many things, starting with asking her how you can help.

Since this is a fairly common problem, especially in the tech world, other companies have dealt with it. Here are some common strategies:

Hack days

It’s standard practice among dotcoms to give employees downtime to create their own projects. Google goes so far as to require every engineer to invent or improve something on his or her own initiative. LinkedIn lets employees pitch their side projects to the CEO for extra time and funding.

Learn and share

Some companies help employees to work on their best skills by sending them to a class. Some do it by letting them teach a class. Some make skill exchange a permanent part of the workweek.

Support a hobby

Renaissance Technologies is one of the most successful hedge funds in history. It hires PhD mathematicians as money managers. Many RenTec employees give up academic careers for the chance to increase their earnings by an order of magnitude. The trade-off is that there are no theorems to prove at the office. Advancing mathematical theory is no longer a direct part of their job. To make up for this loss, RenTec has a very generous leave policy. Employees are encouraged to use it to conduct independent research and publish their works.

Employees who are concerned with using all of their technical abilities are usually not the slacker types. They have the potential of being the brightest stars in their field, like the RenTec fund managers and the Silicone Valley engineers we've talked about earlier. It’s up to you as a manager to give them that chance.

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If you manage talented people, you might like my book, because it's about companies who do just that.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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