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Your People Are Not Pigeons

“two gray-and-black pigeons on black metal fence” by Nick Cooper on Unsplash

As managers, it’s our job to identify and foster areas of growth for the people on our team. It’s also our job to make sure we don’t inadvertently pigeon-hole our people once we discover one skill where they excel. Doing so is not only a disservice to our organizations, it creates unnecessary obstacles for our highest potential employees.

When it comes to junior staff members, I see this as one of the biggest challenges. While we take care of the big, meaty strategy, we need certain tasks done and our greenest employees are the ones to whom we delegate the most tactical and mundane work on a daily basis.

As managers, we must remember that we don’t know what we don’t know about their latent talents. And this is where some detective work is necessary so that we are not only providing our team’s best work for our organizations and clients, but we’re also giving the individuals on our teams the gift of self-discovery that leads to motivation and purpose.

Let me put what I mean into context with an almost over-simplified example:

I bet there’s one person on your team that you always prefer takes the meeting notes because they’re well-organized, thorough, and actionable. You probably tell them they’re awesome at taking notes and they likely appreciate the praise. When they show that appreciation, you’re inclined to praise them more, even publicly with the intention to show them that you think they are a total rockstar at note taking and you want everyone to know about it. This perpetuates a cycle of your praise and their appreciation.

After a while, they volunteer to facilitate one of the brainstorming meetings.

What do you say?

Do you not hesitate for a moment and provide them with the growth opportunity?

Or…

Do you immediately think, “But if she leads the brainstorm, who will take the notes?”

If your instinct is the latter, you might be might be treating your people like pigeons.

It’s safe to say that most managers don’t want to do this and that when it happens, it’s often because a manager had the best of intentions. The good news is that there are little actions you can take to avoid pigeon-holing your people.

  1. Try to say “yes” when people on your team ask for more responsibility or to try a new task.
  2. At the beginning of their career, it’s important that junior team members have as many opportunities to try on “different hats”. This is how they uncover latent talents and it’s how you build well-rounded teams. Try to rotate tasks between staffers when possible to cross-train.
  3. If you have one team member that is really strong in one skill and there’s an increasing demand for it, don’t pigeon-hole…scale it instead. Provide the time and space for your rockstar to train others on the team via one-on-one or via workshop. This doesn’t limit the superpower to one superhero AND it also provides valuable leadership skills to the one providing the training.
  4. Keep in mind that you will lose some of your best people to the mere fact that they outgrew their role or your team. Pigeon-holing them will escalate this process. Provide frequent check-ins that are dedicated to career trajectory and defining their growth plans. Also be mindful that sometimes your long-term vision of success for them might not match their own. This isn’t a bad thing.
  5. Create an atmosphere where your team can be open and candid with their feedback about their role. You can lead by example.

At the end of the day, we are not going to be able to have the luxury of only assigning tasks that people want to do. With every role, there are necessary things we’d rather not spend our time doing.

The point is to remember that every single person on your team has a multi-faceted set of skills, aspirations, and aversions.

It is our job to make sure we look for opportunities to tap into their skills in a way that helps them reach their aspirational goals. At the same time, we want to balance the workload for our teams in a way where no one person is spending the majority of their time completing tasks that they find tedious or mundane. In some situations, this will be easier to manage than others. Where we find the mundane, we must be better at communicating how those tasks are connected to the overall purpose of the team. When our teams know “why” the tasks need to be done and “how” that contributes to the organization’s success, those tasks will become much more palatable.