September 17, 2014

Small Business Advice

Challenging employees will help them perform better

Jerry Osteryoung | 5/6/2013

I think one of the most common mistakes managers make is not challenging their staff.

Managers spend so much time with their workers that they tend to become complacent and fail to provide challenges, which are critical to helping staff grow.

Now, I am not advocating giving employees an impossible task, but challenging them within reason gives them an opportunity to grow, and all of us want to feel as if we are growing and learning. Data shows this is true from an empirical point of view as well.

Three decades of study shows that people achieve a much higher performance level when they are given more challenging assignments. Workers who are given difficult jobs to do have to try different approaches in order to solve the problem. This problem solving leads to growth and learning.

As Connie Chung put it, “I wanted to be scared again. I wanted to feel unsure again. That’s the only way I learn, the only way I feel challenged.”

The real trick is finding the ideal balance between tasks that are challenging yet attainable and those that are impossible. You want to encourage people to reach higher, but not set them up for failure or assign them a task that seems so difficult they feel they will fail.

The minute a task is perceived as unmanageable, the staff member will typically give up and it will be that much more difficult to get them to stretch the next time.

I am teaching a class on starting your own business at a prison in Gadsden County, and I recently did a very unscientific study with the students. I read them a statement and asked them to write down whether they agreed or disagreed.

The statement was: “I would be willing to do 30 percent more work in this class if I get 30 percent more benefits.” Over 80 percent of the class indicated they agreed with this. Several students even came up to me after the experiment to say they would be willing to work harder than that, even though finding time to do the coursework in prison is tough.

The response I received in this tiny study shows me that people really do want to be challenged more.

How the challenge is presented is the critical piece. It is the manager’s responsibility to make sure the assignment is fully explained, the objectives are clear, and that you are there to help them if needed. They must know there is a safety net. However, the expectation must be that they will accomplish the task on their own.

Now go out and make sure you are challenging your staff. Your employees and your business will be better off.

You can do this!

Other small business advice columns from Dr. Osteryoung are here. Note: Articles older than 30 days require registration (it's quick and free).

Jerry Osteryoung is a consultant to businesses - he has directly assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of The Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His newest book co-authored with Tim O'Brien, "If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book," is an Amazon.com bestseller. He can be reached by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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