Fitting Square Pegs in Round Holes

There is no shortage of data on what people want from their organizations. Theories abound about the different generations and what drives their motivation in the workplace. Common to every generation, however, is the desire to fit by aligning skills with where the organization is heading, finding enjoyment in the work and knowing the organization values the contribution.

Fit, it could be argued, is the essence of employee engagement.

When Fit Is Not It

But what happens when fit is not it? Let’s take the hypothetical story of Zoey, who had just earned a degree in social psychology. Her first job was to study the behavior of customers’ choices in motor oil.

At first, the experiment was interesting to Zoey. After several months, however, she found she was making excuses not to go to work — to the point where she actually felt sick in the morning.

After visiting several doctors and finding no physical cause, Zoey realized that she didn’t care about what choice customers made or why. She did not see value in the project, lost interest and her performance suffered as a result.

Zoey was a square peg in a round hole. She had the skills to do the job but really didn’t value the experiment or find interest in the topic. Thankfully, she knew enough to talk with her manager about what was happening, and her manager was smart enough to listen and ask questions.

As a result, Zoey stayed after she and her manager worked together to find another challenging assignment that made best use of her skills.

Employees get frustrated doing a job where they don’t have the necessary skills. Working at an organization with a boss who doesn’t support a value of work-life balance can be equally frustrating. Managers and employees alike have an obligation to find alignment between values, skills and interests to help make for a fulfilling productive work life. When looking at these factors, pay particular attention to interests that keep inspiring employees.

As noted by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop in the book “Job Sculpting: The Art of Retaining Your Best People”: “Skills and values (and attitudes) play an important role in matching ourselves up with the right work roles. But, it’s our long-held, emotionally driven passions that shape our life interest and drive our best career decisions. These deeply embedded life interests do not determine what we are good at — they drive what types of activities make us happy.”

Unfortunately in today’s fast-paced world, busyness doesn’t always translate to happiness. One of the unfortunate side effects is losing sight of oneself and what makes one happy. Employees can lose track of what really works for them and what they want from their work.

Self-awareness — or the lack thereof — affects every choice and decision employees make. Employees cannot plan their career without first being self-aware. Become articulate about who they are will lead to commitment and purpose from their sense of values, competence from using skills and savvy behaviors, and enjoyment and satisfaction from pursuing interests.

Talent managers can help through thoughtful and supportive conversations designed to explore more about an employee’s interest, skills or savvy behaviors and values.

Working the Fit

In 2014 research by the global talent development firm Career Systems International, nearly 20,000 employees from around the globe were asked, “What matters most for your engagement?” Almost 63 percent of those surveyed cited “exciting and challenging work” as their top stay factor (Editor’s note: The authors work at the firm).

That’s a pretty tall order for any organization, as providing every employee with this kind of work doesn’t always align with a department’s needs. Talent managers can start by building interest.

Assign employees a project they enjoy, and don’t be surprised to see them give a little bit more even after a challenging day. Helping employees find those tasks that most interest them can have multiple benefits for the employee and the organization. Job satisfaction increases, energy levels grow higher and enjoyment levels increase.

To help employees identify their interests, ask the following questions:

• What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning?

• What makes you hit the snooze button?

• What interests you most in your current job?

• If you could change one thing about the tasks in your current job, what would it be?

• How can we make your current job more exciting using what you know about your interests?

If doing what interests an employee brings enjoyment, it’s no stretch to understand that they also need to know how to do it for success. To help meet organizational objectives, managers must always seek to discover the hidden or underused skills of their employees.

Skills and savvy behaviors enable employees to do their jobs, accomplish tasks and achieve their goals. Skills are sometimes defined as “what we do” while savvy behaviors are “how we do it.” For instance, a skill is the ability to manage resources by organizing and planning work to make the best use of people, time and budget. To make the most of this skill, an employee may need to employ the savvy behavior of getting up to speed quickly by being flexible and open when changes to the schedule or budget occur. A combination of both is required to maximize performance.

When it comes to skills and savvy behaviors, organizations have no shortage of tools, plans and profiles to help managers and employees engage in conversations. Of all three areas in the career fit model, it’s the one where employees most often have the opportunity to actively demonstrate their skills and savvy behaviors.

Not all of employees’ capabilities, however, may be called for in their current role. To understand what additional talents and abilities they have to offer, career conversations need to cover questions and topics like:

• What skills do you have that you have not been able to use on your job?

• What skills would you like to use more?

• Which part of your job do you find most challenging?

• Tell me about an accomplishment that required you to demonstrate your strengths.

• How do you use your skills and savvy behaviors in your current role?

Values give meaning to life. Satisfaction comes from living and working in harmony with our values. When employees are aware of the values that are most important to them, they can consciously weigh options and make informed decisions about what would be most rewarding for them.

But employees are not always comfortable opening up about values. They can sometimes feel that being too honest about what’s important to them may not be accepted as the right thing for the organization. For instance, stating that “spending time with family and friends” is more important to them than “having high earnings” may seem risky in a competitive environment.

Talent managers can help employees discover their most important values, talk about how those values drive their decisions, and find ways to align their work with what is meaningful for them.

Try starting a values conversation using the following questions.

• What would you say are your top three to five values — what are those things that are most important to you at work?

• How well does your current work satisfy your values?

• What is currently getting in the way of you addressing the top two or three values?

• In what ways does your current job detract from or support your values?

• How can we enrich your work to meet more of your values?

In the end, Zoey and her manager learned a valuable lesson. It’s not enough to have fit in only one area. She had the skills, yet interests and values were missing. Employees can make it work for while with the necessary skills, but ultimately lack of fun and value can lead to dissatisfaction. If a manager gives an employee a task where they don’t have the skill, it’s likely their competence and confidence will be shattered without the necessary training and support.

Employees need an environment in which self-discovery and self-awareness are encouraged and respected. Conversations about values, skills and interests can help, but managers don’t have to do all the talking.

Confirming Fit

A huge part of self-awareness is not just in knowing oneself, but employees must also be aware of how others perceive them. By doing so, employees can balance their self-assessment with their reputation to confirm how it all supports their career goals.

Encourage employees to seek feedback, which they can use to enhance their skills, change habits, emphasize strengths, develop weaker areas and create effective career plans.

Different people see your employees in different roles and situations. Employees may be thinking they are square pegs. A little perspective and a little polish might help them realize they were the right fit all along.

It’s not uncommon to hear or see messaging in organizations that say, “You own your career or it’s your career to manage.” It doesn’t mean, however, that employees have to “do it all” and do it all alone. It’s true that employees bring the energy and engine to the process, but the organization and managers have a role to play as well.

In truth, there should be very few square pegs in round holes in any organization. Managers cannot afford the lack of productivity and disengagement, and employees won’t tolerate it. Recognize when fit is not working in your department or in your organization. Start a conversation around interests, skills or values. Then create a plan to move the employee forward.