What to do when you're feeling underutilized

Members of your open organization need to feel challenged and stretched. Listen to them when they ask to make bigger impacts.
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Alan Levine. CC0 1.0

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.

Feeling underutilized

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.

Reversing roles

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).

Make it your job to get more challenging, meaningful, and interesting work.

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.

Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.


Hey, Sam!

This is interesting stuff, but I'd like to challenge you to flip the script. You hit on what I think is the key here:

"Bosses should consider the situation from their associates’ perspectives. What can you do to keep them engaged and get the benefit of that engagement?"

If an associate doesn't recognize her value or how her work contributes to the success of the department/company, I don't think that's a failing of the associate, nor do I think it's her responsibility to figure out the strategy and how she connects to it. I think it's a primary responsibility of leadership to provide the context, tools, and training to empower associates to do their best work, and that includes helping associates recognize their value and how their work contributes to the success of the team, department, and company.

So now that you've got me thinking about this and I find I actually have more to say, I think I'll offer a counterpoint with some of my experiences in a separate article, if you'd be interested. :-)

Hi Allison,

I agree with everything you are saying. I don't mean to imply that managers shouldn't be setting the context providing the tools and training - those are all key elements of the leader's job, for sure. I do think it would be great to have another view point on this!

In reply to by amatlack

I would echo the idea about managers being more responsible. One of the challenges that managers have from time to time is replacing someone that has left or has moved on to greater responsibilities. In a sense you should always be prepared for this, and the preparation includes having a sense of who is doing such a great job that they should be encouraged to move to more responsibility. This in turn means that you need to have some idea who would replace them.
I've always liked the idea of planting seeds in people's heads. Seeds that suggest new avenues for them to take, and just as you don't throw a single seed, you might scatter several, and then see what germinates. Just seeing the little sprouts come up gives an idea of the fertility out there (and no sprout sometimes indicates a bad seed).
One way of looking at this article would be to think about a situation where someone said that they felt underutilized, and you said, "Here, read this article." How would that advice be received?

Hi Greg,

Thanks for continuing the discussion. You offer some good thoughts on succession planning. My hope is to help each associate develop, and part of that means they may well move on to a different role, in which case it's great to have an internal pipeline of candidates to replace them as you suggest.

On your question, in writing an article like this it's entirely possible that someone on my team might read it and give me feedback :) I probably wouldn't hand them the article, but walk them through it in discussion.

In reply to by Greg P

There is an interesting intersection of ideas here. There's the intersection of responsibility for correcting the issue of under-utilization - the manager and the associate exist in this space, and both take part in the responsibility and the correction. Then there's the intersection of boredom and under-utilization. My first thought was boredom is something separate, but then I re-read Sam's comment '.. isn’t just about volume of work, but also about how meaningful someone’s work really is to them." And that's where I shifted my thoughts. If I'm bored, am I also underutilized? Small bouts of boredom can happen. Who wants to spell-check their writing and then go about fixing it :-) Longer bouts of boredom though lead back to the idea of meaningful engagement. If as an associate, I find myself more and more bored, that sounds like a symptom of my lack of engagement or finding meaning and purpose in what I'm doing.

And then we have the intersection of company value/meaning and personal value/meaning - My boredom could be that I don't 'get it' in terms of how my work is important, adding value to the organization or our customers, or how my little slice fits into the larger organizational puzzle to create that whole picture. But then, my boredom could be something more. It could be that I'm not correctly engaged at the intersection of what the organization needs, what my capabilities are, and where my interests are. That's the ultimate sweet spot. If I find that, then I find the space where my passion and skills fill the need of my organization.

And that brings me back to the original intersection of responsibility. I'm responsible for recognizing the signs of potential under-utilization and bringing it up to my manager, and together we are responsible for uncovering the root cause(s) and an action plan to address them.

Lots to think about here, Sam!

(ps - and yes, I did just get a little bored fixing my typos here before I hit 'save' on the comment ;-)

Thank you, Sandra, for your insightful comments! Indeed, there is a lot to think about here. I do see relationships between engagement, level of boredom, and a feeling of underutilization. My hope as a manager is to give people the context they need to be more engaged - and hopefully to align their passions and talents with our needs.

I totally agree that it's a team effort. Mutual awareness is the key to starting that effort. That's why I encourage people to say something if they feel underutilized or unengaged. Yes, the manager could also observe this, which is another way it could be brought up.

In reply to by Sandra McCann

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