by: Liz Wiseman
Employee satisfaction is down in corporations of all sizes. SHRM reports that while 86% of Americans were happy with their jobs in 2009, that percentage has been in slow but steady decline ever since. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace finds that only 13% of people around the world feel engaged at work.
Some companies are responding by holding their managers accountable for satisfaction levels in their departments. Others seek to engage employees in carefully constructed visions and values programs. Hot Silicon Valley start-ups lure and delight talent with massages and free food.
While these tactics might prove fruitful, there is a better, faster, cheaper way for organizations to help employees feel more fulfilled. Instead of trying to make them happy, ask them to do something hard. Here’s why: The SHRM survey indicates that “the opportunity to use skills and abilities” has displaced “job security” as the top driver of satisfaction, and it consistently ranks among the top two, regardless of a respondents’ tenure, age, gender, or organization staff size. My own research for the book Rookie Smarts confirms this finding and takes it one step further: Employees don’t just want their skills used; they want them stretched.
When we asked approximately 1,000 people from a variety of industries to indicate the current level of challenge in their jobs and their current level of satisfaction, we found a near-linear correlation between the two. In other words, as challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction. Upon further investigation, we discovered that people who had received a challenging assignment, in general, figured it out within three months and were ready for the next one. Respondents needed 12 months, on average, to begin to feel ready for a new role, and they started to feel stale after only 24 months, on average.
The lesson for managers? Although it’s important for your employees to stop and celebrate success or just catch their breath, they might also be ready for the next challenge sooner than you think.
Here are a few signs to watch for:
- Everything they manage has run smoothly for a significant period of time.
- When faced with problems, they jump quickly to solutions.
- They spend time trying to fix other peoples’ and other departments’ problems.
- They’ve become increasingly but inexplicably negative.
And here are three simple ways to make your employees feel challenged again:
- Increase the degree of difficulty. Try giving them higher-stakes work that addresses more complex problems and a more diverse set of stakeholders. For example, it might be time for one employee to take a divisional program to the entire company. Remember to make it hard in the right ways though. If satisfaction is low, your staff is probably already under duress due to limited resources, bureaucracy, politics, or lack of control. Don’t ask them to do the same work while carrying sandbags and juggling knives. You want to productively expand on the meaningful work they’re already doing.
- Turn them into rookies. Instead of letting employees stay comfortable in their respective areas of expertise, invite them to tackle projects in which they don’t have the full knowledge and skills required. Make sure to choose people who have core aptitude or adjacent skills, but then let them learn as they go. Their comfort zones will expand, and they’ll take great pride in mastering new things.
- Pivot them to a new problem. Another strategy is to have your people point their existing expertise at new problems. For example, a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company was asked to shift her research and discovery skills from cellular biology to oncology. Initially, she was unsure how to do so. But, after several months, she said, “I feel completely invigorated in this new role. I feel more challenged than I’ve felt in years but also more creative and in control of my life and career than every before. New scientific ideas are just pouring out!”
When presenting these challenges to your employees, mindful leadership is critical. They need freedom coupled with guidance to propel them up the right learning curve. The goal is to stretch them, not break them, and you should be willing to provide a safety net.
Does keeping your team challenged mean more work for you? It doesn’t have to. In fact, if instead of concocting a new assignment, you can simply give them one off your plate, it might even lighten your load and increase your satisfaction in the process.
Pay raises, bonuses, and promotions are limited. Challenging work—assignments your employees can sink their teeth into—is not. It’s also one of the most effective ways to increase your employees’ satisfaction.
About the Author
Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.
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