Better Boss - Challenge and Growth

Challenge and Growth

Besides the fact that we all need money to pay our bills, why do we work?  What motivates us to get up every day, battle traffic, and put up with the many vicissitudes of a typical workweek?  Believe it or not, the majority of us do it because it gives us a sense of achievement, or challenge, not because of the money.  Indeed, we all know multi-millionaires (or billionaires) who never need to work another day in their life but continue to do so, Bill Gates for instance.  Bill Gates was a multi-billionaire by the age of 30, yet he continues to work. 

Most of us are not as fortunate as Mr. Gates, and he may be an extreme example, however, it emphasizes the point of this section: Money is not the prime motivator for most people with a career. Challenge and personal growth play a major role in how people view their career and how they feel about themselves both personally and professionally.  But how does an individual’s feelings about challenge and growth impact the operational effectiveness of an organization?  How can you recognize when this is happening?  What can be done about improving or leveraging those feelings?  I will address each of these questions in this section.  First, let’s briefly define what is meant by challenge and growth.

Each of us defines what is challenging in different way.  It could be a larger sales territory, managing more employees (or even one employee), managing an unfamiliar project, taking on additional responsibilities, starting a new business or division, or simply doing something you’ve never done before.  Each challenge is as different as each individual.  What is challenging for one is boring for another. Conversely, what is challenging for one can be a monumental undertaking for another.  So, when we talk about creating challenge for someone at work, what exactly are we saying?  How can we discover the right kind of challenge for someone?  The answers are as difficult to find as trying to find out what motivates someone.  Just like motivation, challenge comes from within, or at least the feeling of being challenged comes from within.  If you are a manager, one of the best and most effective ways to find out is to simply ask your employees. But that, ironically, can be, well, a challenge. You see it may not be readily apparent to someone what challenges he/she is looking for that will not cause too much discomfort or anxiety.  You can’t throw such a difficult challenge at someone that they fail miserably.  This causes more problems than leaving well enough alone.  A challenge that is beyond someone’s capabilities causes anxiety and stress and can easily distract from an employee’s core job responsibility producing mistakes and sub-par performance.   If an employee expresses interest in growth and more responsibility, and you have been unable to give this to him/her, then when performance starts slipping you may have a clue as to why.  On the other hand, the lack of challenge can cause boredom, depression, and low self-esteem. 

So what can do you do?  The answer once again lies in the common thread; it is YOUR responsibility to find out!  That’s right.  It’s every manager’s job to talk to his employees and learn what makes them tick and gets them excited.  It’s easy for anyone to sit back and wait for someone to tell them exactly what they want, and then try to help them.  But a real leader will invest the time and effort in their people to discover what is really important to them.  The pay back will be fantastic.  When you find the right challenges, at the right time, people’s energy soars.  Without challenging assignments or opportunities for growth don’t expect people to stay committed to their job, let alone their company.  Only by spending time with your employees will you be able to recognize when their lack of performance is due to a challenge issue, or something else. In other articles I have written I have talked about motivation and how we can’t determine what motivates each person individually. Not only is it difficult, but it changes constantly. This is different. Here, you are not trying to dangle an external carrot in front of someone in order to get them to do something. Finding out what activities challenge someone is done with the goal of developing their skills and capabilities. The right amount of challenge can be motivating for sure, but the motivation, in this case, comes from within. This is what I mean by creating the environment where people can succeed.

Once you’ve determined what makes your employees tick, now what?  What if there simply isn’t an opportunity for someone to take on a more challenging assignment.  Or, the company is currently not growing so the opportunities for growth are not existent at this time.  What do you do now?  I can tell you the wrong thing to do is – do nothing.  Even though you may not have any opportunities, you should still take the time with your employees to discuss the future options should they arise.  By doing this you have accomplished a number of things that most managers/leaders never accomplish in their entire career.  You’ve sat down with your employees to discuss what’s important to them.  This, in itself, shows the employee that you care about their future and their well-being.  Next, you’ve assured them that they are a valued employee since you have taken interest in their future growth.  After all, who wouldn’t feel good about themselves and their work when their boss just told them that when a future opportunity comes up they’ll be considered?  Finally, you’ve gained a better understanding of your employees.  This helps distribute assignments to the right people.  Suppose that through your conversations you discover that Betty likes to analyze numbers and make presentations based on her results.  And John enjoys giving input on marketing and would like to develop into a position in marketing someday.  Now, when your boss asks you to develop a marketing plan for a new idea you have, you can delegate the market analysis to Betty, and let John write a section in the plan related to marketing the new product.  Before your conversations, you might have reversed these assignments, or worse, not given an assignment to either of them. 

The main point, is to be alert to the fact that employees need growth and challenging assignments.  It is up to you to figure out what your employees need.  Without challenge and growth, people become bored, they stagnate, their performance suffers, and then they leave the organization.  A perfectly good employee who you’ve invested time and money in, will leave taking their operational knowledge with them.  Since we are concerned here with improving the effectiveness of operational performance, this is an area you don’t want to ignore for too long.