People enjoy working with Jim. Even in the middle of the flash floods and chaos of a Mumbai monsoon, he exudes a sense of calm and consideration.
Downside of being well-rounded
But when I first met Jim he was feeling stuck. A high-performing team-player in the Indian office of a global corporation, he’d been given wonderful opportunities to develop his talents. He’d attended prestigious training events in exotic locations where he’d networked with industry gurus. Singled out for fast-track development, Jim was being mentored by senior leaders and coached by an organisational psychologist and that’s how we started working together.
Jim started his career as an engineering graduate motivated by the practical application of his talents in fast-paced environments with challenging peers. His potential was identified early. Excited by the opportunities on offer he worked hard for his bosses, developing valuable new skills and becoming reliably well-rounded. Leaders wanted him on their projects because he delivered results efficiently and was easy to be around, but as his popularity increased so did his exhaustion.
Drive or skill?
It can be difficult to feel sorry for someone in Jim’s position. We don’t all have his privileges and personalised development. But many responsible and hardworking individuals have experienced the ‘stuckness’ he describes. Focusing on what we’re good at to the detriment of what energises us can be one of the reasons for feeling stuck, especially for high-achievers.
Imagine taking on a new project, what’s more important for its success: your motivation and drive for the challenge; or your ability and skill to deliver it? I relish the debate this creates during workshops and, of course, it’s a trick question – they’re both indispensable. But for well-rounded, successful people this discussion can be a turning point.
Our capability to perform tasks doesn’t necessarily correlate with our drive to do them – we can be reliably competent in activities that we find draining, for example: presenting, planning or persuading. Equally, some of our current world leaders are great examples of individuals who are motivated by activities for which they seem to be incompetent: presenting, planning and persuading!
Boredom and burnout
The point isn’t that our skills and our drives don’t always align, but that we’re not aware that they can be different. For diligent experts this can be exhausting. When they think about using their strengths, it’s often in relation to abilities that other people value rather than those that motivate them. This isn’t just a potential waste of their talents but runs the risk of, at the very least, boredom and at the extreme, burnout. Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in November 2017 suggest 526,000 workers suffering from work-related stress in the UK with 12.5 million working days lost as a result.
Jim was developing his skills but he wasn’t stretching the strengths that energised him. Starting with the steps outlined below, he became more thoughtful about how to deploy his resources. His confidence to initiate projects also increased as did his ability to inspire a diverse range of colleagues to contribute the strengths that drive them.
Here are the 3 simple steps we can all take when we feel stuck:
- Become aware of the distinction between your drives and your skills by creating a list of all your abilities and rating them on a scale of 0 to 10 for how much they energise you
- Seek activities and people that provide opportunities to stretch your highest scoring strengths and be mindful of taking on too many activities that you find draining
- Chat with colleagues about the skills that drive and drain them. As the proverb says ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ – it can be surprising what you learn.
Jim described it best when he said ‘I want to be part of a highly driven team with distinctive and diverse strengths not contributing to a group of exhausted all-rounders!’