Each person has something they can do better than most – something that comes to them so naturally they barely recognise it as a skill. Leadership expert Liz Wiseman calls this their ‘native genius’ and says HR plays a role in helping people to discover theirs.
At the start of the year, many conversations in HR circles centered around the Great Resignation and retaining talent at all costs. And while there are plenty of valid reasons for this to remain a key concern, there’s a far more important metric to keep in mind: the engagement of remaining staff.
Pouring resources into trying to stop employees from jumping ship is only going to give you short-term benefits. Instead, you should investigate what caused employees to think about leaving in the first place.
In a recent video posted on HRMOnline, Atlassian Futurist Dom Price touched on this very issue.
“I’m worried about the people in organisations who were going to resign but have now gone, ‘I can’t be bothered. I’ll just stay here and take a salary.’ If you’re looking at stats of churn and turnover, you’re going to look at those people and celebrate. But what you’ve actually done is keep a really mediocre person in a slightly warm seat,” said Price.
This isn’t to say they’re mediocre from a skills or personality perspective, but that they’ve just lost their shine; they’re no longer all-in; they don’t have oodles of discretionary effort left to give. And in some instances, that’s okay. All businesses go through ebbs and flows of talent movement.
However, with some fresh, intentional thinking, you can win some disengaged employees back over.
Last week, we shared one way of doing this – by facilitating TOMO (total motivation) cultures that forefront play and experimentation. This week, we’re sharing some advice from leadership expert, best-selling author and former Oracle University Vice President Liz Wiseman, who says that part of helping employees feel truly engaged with their work is to ensure their contribution feels meaningful.
Beyond personal passions and pet projects
A huge part of helping people to feel as though they’re contributing in a meaningful way is to help them discover what Wiseman calls their “native genius”.
“‘Native genius’ is the term I use for ‘What are our minds built to do?’ Each person’s mind works differently,” says Wiseman, who will be a keynote speaker at AHRI’s Convention in August.
For example, an employee might be a master communicator, an excellent synthesiser of information or wonderful at smoothing over conflict. People, and their colleagues, need to be aware of their native genius, as it helps them to figure out how and where to add impact.
“If you want people to do work that’s impactful, find their native genius and put it to work. And not just on a pet project. You want to find a match between an organisation’s most important work and someone’s native genius.”
Wiseman suggests that HR professionals formalise conversations about people’s native genius in order to keep it front of mind when assigning tasks and working collaboratively to achieve organisational goals.
“We don’t have to be passionate about the work, but we can engage in it passionately.” – Liz Wiseman
“Part of onboarding might be saying, ‘What is the thing you’re bringing to this company that has nothing to do with your resume or job description? It’s not even something you’ve learned, it’s just something you do.’ Help people to know how to use that capability.”
Equally important to identifying people’s native genius is helping them understand that fulfilling work doesn’t necessarily mean only working on tasks that align with their personal passions, says Wiseman.
“Managers can get frustrated because if we define fulfillment as work you are passionate about, we miss this opportunity to help people have impact.
“Let’s say we’re an automotive parts company and somebody is passionate about animal rights. What do I do with them? But I can help somebody who’s passionate about animal rights to work on the most important work of the business – and do it in a way where they feel like, ‘My work made a difference to this organisation.’”
A healthy challenge
Wiseman’s believes that challenging work that stretches people can be what gets employees excited to jump out of bed in the morning.
“There’s a piece of research we did a few years back where we asked several hundred professionals a number of questions, including, ‘What’s the degree of challenge you’re experiencing in your work?’ and, ‘How satisfied are you in your job?’
“We found a near-perfect correlation between the two. As challenge levels in our work go up, so does our job satisfaction. But satisfaction doesn’t have to come from working on something we deeply care about. It comes from mastering hard problems.”
She refers to her early career days working at Oracle, now one of the world’s largest technology companies. She was deeply passionate about diving into leadership development, but her boss suggested she instead focused on a more pressing issue for the business: training its engineers – a task which, at the time, felt way out of her depth.
Rather than push back or request to be given a different task, she decided to teach herself how to get excited about software, and she drew on the expertise of others around her.
“That challenge was activating and energising. I did the hard work that mattered to the organisation, which was deeply fulfilling,” she says. “We don’t have to be passionate about the work, but we can engage in it passionately.”
Put people’s native genius to good use
How can HR help people feel this way about their work? Wiseman returns to her automotive company example.
“Maybe the thing [that person carries] into that job is a sense of justice – that all creatures should be treated with respect and dignity. In any business, there are people who are vulnerable and there may be customers who are being mistreated.
“The employee might say, ‘I want to make sure this is a just environment and that we’re taking care of the small customers, not just the big, powerful ones.’”
Take the time to learn about what makes your people tick, says Wiseman. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll likely find an alignment between their native genius and your business’s needs.
Got an IT representative with a passion for gaming? Get them to design fun ways to gamify parts of the work experience, like the learning and development process or goal-tracking approaches. Or perhaps you’ve got staff who are passionate about health. Why not have them co-create and facilitate parts of your wellbeing strategy?
When people think their work isn’t inherently exciting or aligned to their life’s passions, they often emotionally distance themselves from it, says Wiseman.
To fix this, HR and leaders can help employees to “work wholeheartedly” on tasks that challenge them to think innovatively by demonstrating the benefits their work will have in achieving business goals.
Wiseman has many more insights on being an impactful leader and employee, so don’t miss the June HRM Magazine cover story where we’ll take a deep dive into her work.
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.
Don’t miss out on Liz Wiseman’s insightful keynote address, as well as a practical one-day masterclass, at AHRI’s Convention in August.
Register today to secure your spot!