While many managers assume that their team members would like to work less, the dirty little secret of corporate America is that many people would actually like more challenging jobs. A recent survey by Lee Hecht Harrison found that 62 percent of people say they often feel underutilized in their jobs. 24 percent said they sometimes do. In some cases this may be because they’re overqualified: USA Today reported this week on a study led by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder that found that nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs that don’t really need them. Among retail sales clerks, USA Today reported, 25 percent had a bachelor’s degree in 2010, vs. less than 5 percent in 1970.
Even if you’re leading an over qualified crew, you’re best served by trying to match people with work that requires as much of their brainpower as possible. Unchallenged workers are often unhappy workers, and unhappy workers leave when they get a better offer. Here are some ideas for finding and using your team’s hidden talents.
1. Get to know your people. In school, no one has to do their extra-curricular activities, so these side projects often give insights into the activities people enjoy for their own sake. A team member who wrote for her college newspaper might enjoy writing. Someone who planned parties for his fraternity might have a talent for staging events.
2. Keep a good someday/maybe list. I like productivity guru David Allen’s concept of a “someday/maybe” list, which consists of good ideas that perhaps you won’t try today, but you might at some point. Think of interesting projects or leads it would be fun for your department to pursue and ask your team members to add to it too. Then develop the discipline of pulling these projects off the list occasionally, and assigning them to team members with talents you’ve identified in that area.
3. Say yes a lot. If a team member proposes a project, chances are he or she is itching for a challenge. Figure out if there’s any way you can give the green light, even on a trial basis.
4. Push. Give people a little more authority with every project. Real responsibility — and the chance to fail or succeed — tends to bring out the hard worker in people.
5. Practice. Spend a lot of time working with your team to improve their skills. If someone gives a lot of presentations, invest in a public speaking coach to develop her talents. If someone needs to write a lot, you could match him up with a more experienced writer for feedback sessions. Most people do want to get better at their jobs, and will relish the chance to bring their A games to work.
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