At Full Stretch

At Full Stretch

The Chinese expect nothing but the best from their children and employees; they encourage them to set and achieve nothing short of the highest standards and hold people accountable for achieving their best. James Brook, Director at Strengths Partnership Ltd, reckons Western businesses would benefit from' such a philosophy.

In the west, parents in general avoid expecting too much from their children, as they don't want to over-stretch them. Far from being confined to parenting, this approach is fast becoming the norm in the workplace. Human resources policies and practices encourage leaders and managers to treat employees as if they have fragile and hyper-sensitive psyches. Employee welfare takes precedence over productivity, effectiveness and efficiency and when overdone, can start undermining the success and growth of the organisation.

Organisations that fall into this trap don't push people outside their comfort zone enough or challenge them to aspire to higher performance standards and expectations. Rather than helping employees, this often undermines not only their potential, but also their happiness, as their ability to achieve sustained levels of success, which we define as "being the best one can possibly be and fully optimising one's strengths", is curtailed. In the same way that a professional athlete or performing artist needs regular practice and 'stretch' to build their physical and psychological strengths to remain at the top of their game, so do employees, particularly those with strong aspirations and potential to advance. Of course, what is important here is balance - to ensure employees are treated fairly and in a considerate way, whilst at the same time inspiring performance stretch, focused practice and efficiency.

Employees need regular opportunities to test their 'limits' and identify their areas of potential excellence or mastery potential. They need an environment which encourages them to find those strengths where they are capable of putting in "A" performances and opportunities to practice those strengths to ensure they build the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to achieve truly excellent or outstanding performance. They need to experiment using these natural strengths in productive and versatile ways across multiple situations. This builds 'agility', or the crucial capacity to be flexible across different situations and operating environments. Although employees might not feel comfortable with the idea at first, often as a result of fears associated with the unknown and possible failure, a key role of a manager is to coach and encourage the person through any initial reluctance and fear associated with moving outside their zone of comfort. This may sound like "tough love", and in some respects it is, but without this positive challenge, employees are unlikely to get the most out of their strengths, skills and knowledge and will never discover their true potential and the value they can offer to organisations and society more generally. 

By setting high, positive performance expectations of their employees in areas of natural strength, the manager can also leverage a well-researched and powerful psychological process -a self-fulfilling prophecy or the Pygmalion Effect. There are various ways people can get 'stretch' in areas of strength, including: Building new knowledge and skills in areas of strength, taking on challenging assignments or projects that play to one's strengths. Coaching/training others in their areas of strength, gaining experience in different parts of the organisation through job rotations, secondments or short-term assignments and using strengths in new ways, tackles performance blockers and challenges.

In order to achieve 'flow' or total immersion and engagement in a job, research has shown that a person needs to have a passion or desire to do the job, i.e., they need to feel strengthened by it. There also needs to be a good match between the level of skills required and the level of challenge and 'stretch' provided. If there is no stretch, the employee is likely to quickly lose interest and becomes increasingly disengaged, undermining performance and effort. However, if there is too much stretch, the employee is likely to feel incompetent and frustrated, with their confidence and performance being adversely impacted as a result. It is the role of the manager to help the employee identify the degree of stretch currently being experienced by the employee through open inquiry and discussion.

With a clear understanding of current levels of stretch, the manager and employee can then co-create new goals that raise or lower the degree of stretch to a point where the employee is feeling challenged and engaged, but not overwhelmed. This ongoing calibration of stretch will keep the employee's confidence, commitment and contribution high, resulting in strong business results and sustainable career success.

References: Chua, A. (2011). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Press

Strengthscope Profiles at Talent Tools

James is co-developer of the Strengthscope Profiling Suite, a world leader that has multiple applications across the full employee lifecycle. Strengthscope is one of theTalent Tools productivity enhancement tools we use to turn talent into performance.

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Author:James Brook, UK