A few weeks ago, on one of many trips I take to visit team members in different locations around the world, I was having a one-on-one conversation with an associate who I’ve only spoken to a few times. This person has a strong reputation for doing high-quality work and expertly navigating complicated dynamics with stakeholders and other team members. He wanted to let me know that another person on the team, somebody who was relatively new and who probably would not be comfortable coming to me directly, might be in danger of quitting.
"Really?" I said, very interested to hear more. I always encourage people to reach out and let me know if anything is on their mind, because I think it’s the best way to get insights into how people feel about the state of the organization. It’s important not to let these conversations turn into gossip sessions, but encouraging people to share how they really feel can be a very powerful tool for leaders who are open to hearing it.
"I think she’s underutilized," my associate said.
My first reaction was surprise. I constantly hear about how under-resourced we are, how the to-do list contains way more work than our team can complete in a reasonable amount of time. So how could anybody on the team be underutilized?
Underutilization, of course, isn’t just about volume of work, but also about how meaningful someone’s work really is to them. The smart and talented people you hire want to be challenged and stretched. They want to see the impact of their contributions on a bigger picture. Open organizations especially depend on people who take ownership of opportunities, who proactively take on challenges and speak up when they see things that are not working as well as they could be.
My challenge to those who feel like they aren’t being fully utilized, or that they aren’t being given meaningful work, or that they don’t understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture, is this: Make it your job to get more challenging, meaningful, and interesting work.
I don’t like feeling underutilized, and I empathize with people who have that feeling. If I personally feel underutilized, I use it as a signal to stick my head up and figure out how I can contribute more meaningfully to the organization.
But not everybody feels comfortable doing that, especially people who haven’t been working in an open organization for very long.
So start by talking to your boss. Some ways to approach the conversation include:
- Ask what you can do to increase your scope, and explain that you are eager and able to take on more.
- Remind your boss of some of the skills and experience you have, and explain that those are not being utilized. Are there any assignments that might use some of your unique skills?
- Chances are good you have some ideas of specific things you could work on. Mention those things and ask if you can take them on.
- Describe some of your observations, including opportunities for improvement in how the team works or in outcomes that it could achieve. If your boss agrees these are good opportunities, ask if you can take responsibility for them.
What does this conversation look like from the other side?
When people approach me with these kinds of conversations, I am always impressed that they are taking the initiative and that they are eager to contribute more. Often, my response is an unqualified and enthusiastic "YES! Please do that. That would be awesome!"
In those cases, the following things are usually true:
- The person has consistently demonstrated high-quality work.
- The person clearly understands our goals and is looking for ways to help us achieve them more effectively.
- The ideas the person is presenting make sense; they sound achievable, appropriate and effective.
If my response is not unbridled enthusiasm, then these are the factors that I am usually considering:
- Is this person demonstrating a knowledge of our goals and overall strategy? If not, I want to help them understand and then reflect on how they can channel their ideas into things that are better aligned with out needs.
- Is this person in the wrong job? Sometimes, an associate’s ideas will be so far outside of the scope of their work, I wonder if the real problem is that they would be more effective in a different role. In those cases, I steer the conversation toward learning more about the person’s passions and skills, and then talk about our highest priority needs and try to find a match.
- Would the ideas this person is describing take away too much focus from the other important work that they are doing? In this case, we need to work out a plan that would enable the person to both focus on the important work we need done, but also give them an opportunity to explore something more interesting. This can be a tricky balance depending on the specific circumstances.
Both parties in the conversation have work to do. The associate feeling underutilized and the manager need to be willing to talk openly and share their perspectives and ideas.
What are you solving?
In all cases, the question with which I usually approach the conversation is this: "What problem are you trying to solve?"
You can think of this questions in two ways: On one hand, you are trying to solve the problem of not having enough interesting or challenging work for yourself. On the other hand, you are trying to solve the problem of helping the team achieve its goals more effectively.
Both you and your boss might care equally about both of these problems. But you might be more concerned with the former; your boss might be more concerned with the latter.
Associates should think about how to frame the discussion to appeal to a boss’ needs, not just their own. Saying "I want to do this work to help the team achieve its goals or prevent the team from failing" is probably going to be more effective than "I want to do this work because I'm bored now and I need something more interesting to do." Both statements could be true at the same time, but use the one more appropriate for your audience. Also, if you are really passionate about something, it will show (whether you say it or not).
Bosses should consider the situation from their associates’ perspectives. What can you do to keep them engaged and get the benefit of that engagement?
I was glad my colleague came to me with the concern about their co-worker, or I wouldn’t have known there was an issue until the person did something more drastic, like leave for a different job. I came away from that interaction resolved to make sure everyone on my team is comfortable speaking up, to let people know it’s safe to tell me they feel underutilized and to keep conversations about the quality of the work—not just the amount of work—candid and open.
Download the Open Organization Leaders Manual
The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.