While pushing employees to the limit might work when tasks are mechanical and monotonous, it’s absolutely the wrong approach for highly skilled, creative positions. In fact, according to Yale School of Medicine neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, intense pressure (good or bad) actually squelches creativity by causing dysfunction in a human’s prefrontal cortex.
With the U.S. unemployment at its lowest rate since the recession ended, your star creative employees may already be considering their options. As Gallup’s recently updated State of the American Workplace report showed, the number of workers who think that now is a good time to find a better job has more than doubled since 2012.
And — from the same study — more than half of employees surveyed said they were actively seeking new jobs or scanning help-wanted ads.
Valuing them, however, isn’t enough. Employees who are under pressure or feel that they’re spinning their wheels won’t give you their best. They need a workplace where they can evolve and grow — even if this means they ultimately outgrow you.
If you want them to fly, set them free.
To spur true creativity and innovation, you must be willing to lose your best and brightest. Here are three ways I’ve learned to keep my teammates engaged in their roles here at Clevertech while still challenging them to grow.
1. Stretch them to explore their abilities.
Many companies view employees as cogs, objects good only for particular purposes. However, unlike humans, objects hold no future potential or past experience. Everyone on your team possesses his or her own personal history, concerns and ambitions. Ignoring these individuals’ futures beyond your company means that, at best, they won’t improve — or, at worse, they’ll burn out. Stretching people requires changing how they see things.
Maybe employees can’t see your bigger picture from their vantage point, only the long, trudging path toward a giant end goal. To challenge and change assumptions, encourage employees to explore the current edges of their skill sets and afford them enough space to practice and expand.
Related: Is Your Employee Development Broken? Here’s How to Fix It.
When teammates feel overwhelmed at my company, we break tasks down into smaller components to see what initial product we can come up with from what we already have. Our goal is to figure out how what we’re doing right now could delight somebody; it’s not to finish the massive, daunting task.
Focusing on smaller parts of the whole shifts the mood and illuminates fresh views of the future. Simple exercises such as this can turn attitudes and morale around, making your team more productive in the long run.
2. Puncture the surface to get to the root.
A Society for Human Resource Management survey found that more employees feel as if they contribute to their companies’ goals than the reverse. But, to meet the goals that are set for them, employees are forced to disregard aspirations that don’t fit the task at hand, and this mindset stunts creative and professional growth.
Personal ambition is integral to an employee’s value, so give your team members tools to dig deep and discover their purpose, even if that action leads them elsewhere.
Our company’s “Dream Goals” workshop for longtime teammates does just that. Instead of asking broad, vague questions, we ask about places they’d like to visit, extreme activities on their bucket lists and visions for their families’ futures (if the employee has or envisions a family). The goal isn’t to pry; it’s to help them drill down to their deepest desires.
Related: 6 Ways to Encourage Autonomy With Your Employees
VMware, a provider of cloud and virtualization software and services, has instituted a similar program called “Look Within,” which gives teammates a chance to bolster their experience by exploring other roles with different teams or departments for several weeks. After five years with the company, VMware employees are also eligible to spend three months — known as a “rejuvenation period” — taking on a project outside of their day jobs.
Beyond workshops and sabbatical-like programs, tools such as CareerLine can help your teammates map out their own experiences and determine their pie-in-the-sky career goals, and you can help them carve out viable paths toward achieving them. Maybe you offer certain roles more autonomy or match rookies up with suitable mentors to refine skills. These things can help ensure they’re giving you the best they have.
3. Poke and prod to find their weak spots.
Helping people discover and attain goals is only half of the equation. The other half is figuring out where they don’t excel. According to corporate consultant Jim Taylor, “To really make big gains, you have to improve weaknesses.”
Sit your team down for a frank conversation about how uncovering flaws can be more valuable than polishing strengths. Encourage team members to criticize the company; then, listen, prod and find out what isn’t working so you can fix it.
At our company, we play World of Warcraft to give people a no-pressure opportunity to ask questions and discover weaknesses in themselves and others. We assign to teams collaborative, in-game tasks. It’s not about individuals succeeding on their quests; it’s how the unit as a whole feels along the journey.
And those feelings can emerge in force: Someone might ask, for instance, why teammates chose characters whose strengths the questioner doesn’t understand, or why players shut down others’ ideas or failed to heed experienced players’ advice.
Related: How Gamification Is Engaging Customers and Employees Alike
In one enlightening instance, we found a team member picking up the slack for underperforming players. Our follow-up conversations helped him see how his failure to trust his teammates had ultimately limited their opportunities.
These open, no-pressure discussions create perceptible improvements in how our team members work together. What kind of activity might help your teams uncover and address their weaknesses?
The days of the “company man” are over. To truly compete today, businesses need to help their creative teammates develop the best versions of themselves — even if that means they don’t stay with your company forever.