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Cultivating potential – one (good) employee at a time

By Karen Natzel
Dolan Media Newswires

We understand that people drive results. Now there is proof that unleashing a team’s potential can drive individual and organizational performance.

Consider a 2012 study by Temkin Group, which found that highly engaged employees are:

  • 480 percent more committed to helping their company succeed,
  • 370 percent more likely to recommend their company as an employer, and
  • 250 percent more likely to recommend improvements.

Yet, all too often business leaders and managers spend an inordinate amount of time addressing performance issues with “high maintenance, low producing” employees. These individuals can be toxic to a company’s culture.

However, we continue to spend time, money and energy trying to spur a course correction by someone who either isn’t a good fit for the role / organization, or is unwilling to embrace real change and growth. The consequence is that the organization hobbles forward with an ailment that isn’t properly addressed, and overall health and capacity suffer.

When leaders tolerate and coddle difficult employees, they steal time away from people who with guidance, coaching and mentorship could be star performers. It’s easy to see why this happens. “Good employees” often are self-starters with a strong work ethic; they boost morale and play well with others.

Unearthing the diamond in the rough

A caveat here: My intent is not for you to label a difficult employee as high maintenance and therefore uncoachable. Sometimes, an employee is a bit of a “diamond in the rough;” someone who has hidden exceptional characteristics and/or future potential, but lacks the final touches that would make him/her truly stand out.

Be honest with yourself here: It’s not about having a charity project because you have a big heart. In the end, enabling or pitying someone neither demonstrates true respect nor aids in the individual’s or company’s growth. When in a situation with someone who has a history of being challenging, choose to interact differently with the person – break the pattern and form a new contract with new expectations.

How to motivate for performance

hiredPsychologists for years have been studying what motivates us. Cognitive theories, such as the Self-determination Theory, suggest humans are “inherently proactive, but only when the external environment (supports) this.” To allow our innate motivation to flourish, the following must exist:

  • Autonomy – the innate need to feel in command of one’s life;
  • Competence – being effective in one’s job and achieving mastery; and
  • Relatedness – the desire to interact with others and have social connection.

So, where can you start to cultivate the potential of a latent or underdeveloped star performer?

Know and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. It’s actually much easier to cultivate one’s strengths than it is to improve one’s weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to challenge areas. It means sitting down with the person, one-on-one, for a candid conversation. By being forthright, you build trust and get to the heart of the matter.

Demand excellence. And give them all the support possible to achieve it! Know when and where to increase their responsibilities, preferably incrementally to build confidence and competence.

Provide a motivational culture. Know your people – what they like to do, what they care about, their goals and their concerns. Understand and tap into what intrinsically motives them. See them for all that they are – and what they are capable of becoming. Create an environment that is conducive to igniting passion, empowerment and innovation. That includes allowing for and encouraging making mistakes. No innovation can happen if employees fear retribution of calculated risk taking and doing things outside the norm.

Include them. Provide meaningful opportunities for the team to creatively contribute to process improvements in the organization. Create a cross departmental work team (with at least one senior manager) to collectively address a specific concern. This breaks down silo barriers, builds teams and tackles a plaguing company issue. (Be sure to empower them with the resources and ability to make changes!)

Reward right attitudes and right behaviors. Catch them in the act of showing up as star performers and demonstrating the kind of thinking and actions that produce results. People are motivated by achievement. Be a conduit for their success. Show genuine appreciation and provide positive, real-time reinforcement.

Coach rather than instruct. Effective leadership requires approaching every situation and person with the skills and temperament needed in that moment. There are times when it is appropriate to simply tell someone what needs to be done. There are other times when it provides more long-term value to coach someone. Coaching raises employees’ awareness: They can be more autonomous, better decision makers and more accountable. Coaching requires an entirely different set of skills, such as making and sharing observations, asking open-ended questions, seeking their recommendations and active listening.

Track and communicate tangible progress. Connect the organization’s goals directly to the employees’ work so they can see how their actions produce results. People like to contribute and be a part of something bigger. Progress begets more progress.

Have a plan. This may sounds rudimentary, but more often than not, good employees are left to their own devices. Instead, co-create a pathway for continued professional development – one that is aligned with the organization’s direction, purpose and values, and one that is clear about expectations but provides autonomy as well as opportunities to build competencies and develop strong team relationships.

Create a symbiotic situation where you can leverage the employee strengths, what they love to do and what needs to get done. When you give attention to an employee with potential, you set the tone that at the company, personal and professional growth is expected and performance is rewarded.

Karen Natzel is a business therapist. She can be reached at karen@natzel.net.

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