Companies that want to improve employee engagement need to evaluate the messages they’re sending to workers about their capacity to change. People aren’t built to be everything to everybody.
The idea that anyone can be anything often comes from the best intentions — albeit false presumptions — but it is hurting business, said Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at Gallup Inc. According to Gallup, only 13 percent of people are highly engaged in their work and workplace, and Harter said that relates directly back to whether people feel they have the right development opportunities. It’s not that organizations lack training, but they need to be more strategic in their offerings to make the most of learning investments — and improve employee engagement.
Organizations haven’t really used science to tease apart what adults can change about themselves and what’s less changeable, Harter said, and “that leads to a lot of inefficiencies.”
While the human brain continues to change over a lifetime, making it possible for adults to learn and apply new skills well beyond their time in school, the wiring that makes them who they are — our traits and talents, for instance — are pretty baked in by the time people reach their early teens, Harter said.
“What is changeable is how you approach a work environment, how you leverage your natural abilities and become aware of other people’s natural abilities — that’s all changeable,” he said. “What is much less changeable is the individual’s personality, their predispositions, and it’s an uphill battle to try to get someone to be who they naturally aren’t.”
In the newest edition of “First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” from Gallup, great managers understand this. These managers are guided by the perspective that people don’t change that much, and it’s futile to “put in what was left out” — the “left out” being personal traits a person doesn’t have when they arrive to an organization.
“It’s really about working with the grain as opposed to working against the grain,” Harter said. Whether someone is naturally an achiever, adept at developing others, has a natural capacity for empathy or to be analytical matters, and should inform their learning experiences. Harter said it’s important for learning leaders to separate what science says about their efforts to improve employees, and offer a suggestion that can guide them in driving a learning strategy that considers employees’ individual strengths and focuses on training investments.
Know the foundational role of natural talent. Learning leaders need to work with the understanding that each person they engage in a development activity comes to the table with traits and predispositions that uniquely shape their learning experiences. Learning leaders, managers and individuals need to know what those talents are. Scientific tools that identify an individual’s strengths can help move people away from the assumption that everybody is the same or that everybody can develop in the same capacity toward the same outcomes.
Approaching learning and development with an understanding of what neuroscience says about adults’ ability to change leads to greater efficiency, Harter said. It’s an uphill and expensive battle to assume everybody is the same and will digest material in the same way. “In the end managers, should care about it because they’re in charge of performance, and it leads to higher performance and higher engagement.”
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.