Don’t Put Your Employees in a Box

June 18, 2016

employee individuation

Don’t Put Your Employees in a Box

During a recent conversation with a friend who’s in the middle of a career transition, she described experiences all too common for many corporate employees. The more I listened, the more I pictured her manager as a robotic automaton, ticking his little checkboxes and giving talented employees impersonal feedback and demerits based more on their adherence (or not) to technical, bureaucratic protocol than on the quality of the work they’d done. 

Have We Lost Our Way?

The conversation made me feel positive and negative emotions simultaneously. I was happy that my friend had found another position about which she was excited, but I was disheartened by the realization that millions of talented employees are treated like faceless, voiceless figures herded into cubicles to follow a set of instructions and do no more or less than what’s in their employee handbook or job description. I believe this is a topic which warrants much discussion and consideration among employers, managers, and corporations everywhere. 

In the case of my friend, it wasn’t lack of a clear-cut role that frustrated her — it was lack of freedom to work and accomplish things in more than one strictly predetermined way. As is the case in many gargantuan, multinational companies, procedure and protocol are implemented to maintain order, organization, and uniformity throughout the various offices, departments, and levels. I understand the purpose and function of procedure and protocol, and I’m not questioning their validity (there’s a time and place for everything), but when a company becomes so automated and mechanical that any variation or deviance from protocol causes confusion or criticism, it’s a sign that they need to loosen the reigns and find a way to value talent and work outside of their process-governed bubble.

Employers Who Nurture Talent

Thinking back on my own corporate career, I realize just how fortunate I was to have had mentors who nurtured my specific skillset instead of trying to fit me into a box sealed with red tape. I’m sure stories like mine are talked about much less than stories like that of my friend, but nonetheless, they happen — there are people who get it. Those people are called leaders, and are deserving of the title. One of the key traits that makes a leader more than just a role or a label is their ability to recognize and work with talent, even when it’s not the company’s typical ideal “on paper,” even when it’s like hiring a square peg when you thought you needed a circle. 

If You Have a Box to Put Them In, They Won’t Think Outside of It

Of course education and qualified experience are important, but so are creativity, work ethic, and ingenuity. Don’t tell me there’s not a place for those qualities in every organization and role, because there most definitely is. Another mistake managers make is thinking that there’s no need to improve upon the way things are done in a company. There’s always more to know than what you know today, and there’s always another way to do something. Someone who sees it differently than the way it’s always been done should be heard and encouraged, not chided for challenging the status quo and threatening order. 

Many times, the people who “think outside the box” are the ones whose employee profiles differ from what might be expected for their position. The ones without a background in the field, who don’t have a strong sense of where they fit or what they want to do, but could be great at anything they put their mind to. Maybe their strongest skills aren’t necessarily the ones required for their role, but with a little nurturing, those skills could become an asset to cultivating the right knowledge for the job (while the other skills are learned and developed).

Mark Zuckerberg is a (Harvard) Dropout

Too many times employers turn away the flickering, less obvious stars because they seem to be scattered, all over the map, or without a strong career projection. But the “lost” ones are often the most interesting and creative people you’ll ever meet! Question: how many multi-millionaires, CEOs, and inventors didn’t have a prestigious degree (or any degree) and the perfect amount of backing experience? A huge percentage of them! Check out this article from The CheatSheet called 8 Billionaires Who Never Bothered to Get a College Degreefor a nice case in point. The argument could be made for the possibility that these people were either nurtured by a mentor (someone gave them the chance to develop and gain the confidence necessary to become who they needed to be), or maybe they gave up on traditional employment because no one tried to understand them and they were tired of being put in a box. 

Repeat after me: a set of qualifications on paper does not the ideal employee make. If you want to be known for running a stand-out company, especially in a creative or service-oriented field, then you need stand-out talent. Not just someone with a certain SAT score who has performed the same tasks successfully and dependably for years. Those things have value, and all companies need worker bees, but that’s not what will set your company apart. There are a ton of people like that. You should seek out the dependable, smart, hard-working talent that’s also creative, unique, interesting on a personal level, and has room to grow and explore what they want to offer the company. Too many companies dangle a job like a carrot for applicants to win. They don’t realize that if they’re looking for the right talent and they find it, the company wins. 

Leaders Who “Get It” Challenge the Way Things Are Done

The humanity and open-mindedness of true leaders who “get it” are, in part, what drive companies to change their organizational structure and create positions in which employees can utilize their unique skills and passions. These companies aim to evolve, be places where employees are happy to show up every day, and compete in the marketplace with their stand-out team.

A satisfied and well-appreciated individual almost always does more than expected. In organizations where this is the norm, the daily responsibilities of a certain position probably aren’t over-complicated and lengthened by nonsensical procedural clicks, check marks and tedious paper trails. Employees are driven to excel by being encouraged to think critically and creatively about problem-solving, presenting a unique way of doing things, polishing a compelling voice, or identifying ways to improve and better serve clients instead of spending countless demoralizing hours paging through a cookie cutter five-year plan outlined for them by someone who wrote the company’s corporate initiatives for an audience of drones. People are not fond of feeling like cogs in a wheel. Everyone wants to feel like they have a purpose and that they’re playing a part in the evolution of their company. 

To that end, employees don’t leave companies, they leave people. As dull or as exciting as the work may be, if employees are treated with respect and their individuality is nurtured, they will find ways to enjoy the work more, improve the overall environment, and perform better — of which a manager and everyone on the team will benefit. 

Foster Greatness, Not a Standard

I would encourage employers everywhere to stop turning away those seemingly odd, floundering types and give them a chance. As long as they have skills you can mold and are willing to work hard, making a place for them in your organization can define your company’s success as much as (or more than) just filling roles with long-legged resumes and predictable overachievers. Focusing on talent, morale, and workplace relations will ensure that when your flickering star finds the thing they’re most passionate about, the thing that finally fits, they’ll turn into a star that shines brightly in your organization — and you’ll be an immediate beneficiary. 

Foster greatness, not a standard. Give the less obvious candidates a chance. Listen to them, learn what drives them, conduct a personality assessment to see how their strengths might fill a weak spot on your team. Value their insight and view their lack of concrete experience as an opportunity to honor and cultivate a fresh perspective. You might just realize it’s the shape of your job openings that doesn’t quite fit the mold, not the candidates. 

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