Do you optimize or develop your people?

I confess, I didn’t know the answer to that question three months ago. I didn’t even know it was a question. The distinction between optimization and development is slight but significant. It is changing how I think about people, careers, organizational life and the role of human resources.

Developing people has a very specific meaning in the West. This post-WWII view developed by behavioral psychologists now broadly shapes how we approach career development. It is based upon the blank slate understanding of human nature and has led to the belief that anyone can be shaped to be anything as long as we give them the right input. Most businesses, non-profits and Tiger Moms function with this view of people.

Because it is assumed that anyone can do most things, performance becomes a matter of hard work and dedication. And it is true that if we work at something long enough and hard enough, we can generally become somewhat proficient at it. So we hire those with the best qualifications, education, experience, and fit. Then we put them in a job and train them, offering continuing development throughout their career. High performers are promoted and developed, and expected to succeed.

The goal, of course, is the top of the ladder, the celestial C-suite, becoming a partner, etc. The stories we tell reinforce this view. We interview high performers about how they achieved this level of success, hoping that somehow we can find their secret and incorporate it to become that next great CEO in the pantheon of the gods.

Approaching career development in this way is a win-win situation for both the individual achiever and the organization, right? Not so fast. When combined with an overemphasis on achievement, such thinking can result in very negative consequences. More often than not, we find people promoted into positions they really don’t have the capacity for (the Peter Principle), and both those working under them and the organization itself suffers.

Furthermore, this misguided blank slate view of human nature can have severe implications for the individual (not to mention their families and others in their life). What if we are limited by a capacity that is in fact partially hardwired, as research now indicates? This would mean that making certain career choices or performing certain tasks or functions within an organization can affect our well-being more negatively than previously imagined. It goes beyond something “not being our strong suit.” The evidence suggests that not only will involvement in such ill-suited work lead to a lack of meaning and purpose in our lives, it can lead to depression, heart disease, and other maladies if performed over long periods of time. For people participating long-term in such work, a future life crisis is almost guaranteed.

Optimize me.

Research is confirming what we have all suspected: our brains and biochemistry play an important role in determining what energizes us the most. We need to be optimized, which means that we need to measure our innate capacity and develop our strengths. Doing so allows us to reach our maximum potential. Rather than viewing the corporation and our career as a ladder, with an ultimate goal of making it to the “top,” we might think of it more as a tree composed of many thick branches all necessary for the tree’s health. Each tree branch might be compared to the competencies necessary for organizational flourishing. The goal is to find our “sweet spot” on the right branch.

The organization becomes a place where people are employed in areas that match their personality, capacity and competencies. The goal of senior management and HR is to optimize the talent under their watch. Once you adopt this view, how you manage, delegate, form teams, think about leadership succession all change. It is a different universe, one that is healthier as well as productive/efficient. But it also demands a different model of management/leadership than the traditional model to which most of us are accustomed.

We cannot continue with the mistaken notion that we all have the capacity to be president or CEO, if given the chance. Nor is a career as a doctor or lawyer or banker necessarily for everyone, no matter how much our ambitious parents may dream that for us.

How to move forward?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Rethink human nature.

    We need to adopt a different model of human nature, one that accounts for difference and views diversity as a good thing.

  2. Understand capacity.

    We need to rethink capacity by incorporating a model that first assesses and measures capacity, and then optimizes the real capacity. This is more difficult than it seems.

  3. Optimize yourself.

    We need to take responsibility for our own optimization. Since it will be a long time before career counselors, HR departments, etc., adopt a different view of human nature, the responsibility remains with the individual.

Want to live a good life and engage in meaningful work?

Do your homework, seek quality advice from people with expertise, use assessment tools wisely, and enjoy exploring without fear of failure. To help you along, we will be offering some follow-up ideas in future blog posts that explore related topics in greater depth. We invite you to join us.

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