I can’t use all my technical IT abilities.
— IT Engineer
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 things, but the most basic way to express yourself at work is by using your job-related training and skills. This IT Engineer feels under-utilized 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 much-needed employee loyalty and enthusiasm. And it often goes unnoticed until the employee quits physically or emotionally, and the manager feels discouraged or even stabbed in the back.
One thing every manager can do to prevent this common scenario is to ask questions. Be curious about whether 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 years as someone else’s employee, 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 on-the-job boredom might be an awkward subject.
First, boring or not, there’s work to be done. And we don’t 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 opening a can of worms with no 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 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 it as a favor and will show more sensitivity toward the manager. So, she will be more motivated to complete a tedious task (or to stay at 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 to ignore them, even if our instincts tell 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—which could be a white lie to save face and avoid the controversy. Wait for what comes next. By doing so, you will build trust. Soon, your employees will 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. It communicates disempowerment to the employee. You can do many things, starting with asking her how you can help.
Since this is a common problem, especially in the tech world, other companies have dealt with it. Here are some common strategies:
It’s standard practice among dot-coms to give employees downtime to create their own projects. Google requires every engineer to invent or improve something on his or her 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. Others 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 Ph.D. mathematicians as money managers. Many RenTec employees give up academic careers for the chance to increase their earnings by order of magnitude. The trade-off is that there are no theorems to prove at the office. Advancing a 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 work.
Find out if your people feel underutilized and help them find a solution. There’s a simple reason why you should care. Employees concerned about using all of their technical abilities are not the slacker types. They have the potential of being the brightest stars in their field, like the RenTec fund managers and the Silicon Valley engineers we’ve talked about earlier. It’s up to you, the manager, to give them that chance.
If you manage talented people, you might like my book because it’s about companies who do just that.