Unless you know your employees on a chromosomal level, don’t call them gifted. When you call an employee gifted, you shortchange everyone else on your workforce. You oversimplify the myriad details that contribute to a person’s character. You compliment a person for an unearned quality and reinforce negative stereotypes.
Besides, your employees aren’t as gifted as you think.
They are, however, complex bundles of genes, chemicals, memories and emotions. Your entire workforce is a volatile Venn diagram of human experience that you will never fully comprehend.
To give you an idea of what’s really at work in your office, here’s a list of 10 factors that you might not have considered when you call someone “gifted,” along with 5 tips for better employee management.
1. Internal Motivation
Beneath the deadlines, bonuses and company perks, self-motivation plays a major role in the productivity levels of employees. Someone you’re inclined to call gifted might simply enjoy pursuing opportunities and challenges. This person is not necessarily more talented—self-motivation indicates confidence and proactivity, which usually lead to more productive (or “talented”) individuals.
2. External Motivation
There’s a general consensus that positive reinforcement creates better results than negative reinforcement. But I don’t agree, because I’m filled with “rebel genes.” Aside from playing devil’s advocate just because I like controversy, I love to hear someone tell me I can’t do something.
Different management styles produce different results. When an employee responds well to your manner of criticism, call it symbiosis—but don’t call it giftedness.
3. Brain Garbage
Don’t mistake people with good ideas for round-the-clock geniuses. It’s more likely that your gifted employee produces several bad ideas before arriving at one that is worthwhile.
What distinguishes the gifted from the non-gifted isn’t natural ability, but output. The more bad ideas an employee has, the higher chance a good idea will come out of the process. If you’re curious and an employee is willing, ask to see an early draft or version of an assignment. It’s like seeing a celebrity without makeup.
4. Work Environment
The work environment is a huge reason why some employees thrive and others survive. An open air layout can benefit extroverts but makes introverts even more reserved. A male-dominated C-suite can turn off some women and challenge others. A conservative company might squash some progressive thinkers but enliven the ones who seek ideological diversity.
So before you label your top salesperson as naturally gifted, consider the possibility that this employee has actually been gifted with an ideal work environment, not super-genes.
5. Non-Work Environment
What are the chances that Venus and Serena Williams would have become professional tennis players had their parents not coached and guided them toward that goal? The interplay of athletic training and at-home encouragement produced exceptional results.
Even if you can account for an employee’s every move during work hours, you’re still only seeing half the story. A glimpse into life outside of work will usually reveal years of dedication and personal development, not spontaneous talent.
Look around your office and you’ll see one desk covered in colorful Post-Its, another with nothing but monitors and cables and maybe one that’s fitted onto a treadmill. Even a cluttered desk can be the yin to an office worker’s yang. Each desk is a reflection of an employee’s work process.
Finding a process “sweet spot” can lead to impressive results, but it does not indicate natural talent. If employees were to swap methodologies, output would undoubtedly change and the gifted employees might not seem so gifted after all.
Lucky is a slightly better descriptor than gifted. Both words indicate passivity, but while giftedness seems intrinsic, luck is something that comes and goes. When exceptional ideas, circumstances and experiences align in one person, that person is lucky, not gifted.
8. Your Own Perception
Every declaration of talent comes with an implication. “That engineer is really talented (for a woman),” or “Susan Boyle is an amazing singer (for a middle-aged nobody)” are common misconceptions. The truth is, gender plays a larger role in perception than ability and Susan Boyle was an active singer for years before her pivotal TV performance.
Preconceptions about age, gender, physique, race, class and creed determine who you consider remarkable. As long as an industry is dominated by a particular type of person, anyone who doesn’t fit the mold is deemed gifted when, really, so much more is at play.
9. Belief in Natural Talent
If you believe you are a natural swimmer, you are far more likely to pursue swimming than someone who thinks he lacks potential. A lifetime of effort will never compete with innate ability, so why try? On the other hand, the belief in one’s own giftedness can be hugely motivating, even if it isn’t true.
Belief in natural talent can be encouraging or discouraging but it has a lasting psychological effect either way.
If you’ve followed any professional sport, you might have felt the disappointment of learning your favorite athlete was juiced up on steroids. In a less extreme example, a higher performing employee may simply take better care of herself with exercise and a healthy diet.
Then there are those who seem to do just fine with Red Bull and chicken wings.
At the end of the day, every single employee is a walking, talking chemical experiment. The gifted ones are just better at not combusting.
Tips for Employee Management
Now that I’ve opened this Pandora’s Box of human complexity, you might be wondering what, if anything, you should do about it. Luckily, the workplace is still your domain. Here are a few simple ways you can accommodate the many personalities on your team.
1. Uncover What Inspires Your Employees
Work with your team members to find out what motivates them—and then devise a plan for helping them to succeed. Provide chances for your employees to train in areas that engage them and help them move forward in their careers. Questions like these can help you uncover your employees’ motivators:
- What are you learning from your work?
- Is it what you hoped to learn?
- How is what you’re doing now in synch with your career objectives?
Also be sure to watch for recurring patterns of thought, feelings and behavior in your employees, and then place them in roles where those patterns may become more obvious—to themselves and others.
2. Encourage Experimentation
Make a point of encouraging your employees to generate, solicit and collect new ideas—even if not all of them are winners. Ask open-ended questions to stimulate innovative thinking and offer feedback for new ideas. Encourage brainstorming and open-mindedness on your team—ideas that seem off the wall one day might be lucrative the next.
3. Foster a Dynamic Floor Plan
If your office is set up with an open floor plan, a few private, lounge-like rooms will offer respite for the introverted. On the other hand, cubicle offices should include common areas that are bright and inviting. One floor plan won’t satisfy every personality type, so do what you can to make the work environment as comfortable as possible.
4. Allow Flexible Work Conditions
Different people work in different ways, and setting rules about when and how they can work can impede your employees’ processes. Implementing flexible hours is one easy method of employee management that will support your team members.
Removing the pressure to arrive at a certain time will reduce commuter stress. It will also reveal which of your employees are early birds and which ones aren’t, giving you better insight into your workforce.
5. Acknowledge Your Own Biases
Even though most of us believe we see and treat people as valued equals, hidden biases may still influence our perceptions and actions. You can start by taking some of the tests at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ to uncover your hidden biases. When you acknowledge and overcome these biases, you will be more successful at setting all your employees up to perform their best.