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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Ways to Keep Your Best Employees Engaged (and Away From the Job Boards)

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Ever heard of giving your direct reports stretch assignments? You’d most likely give them to your employees who don’t feel challenged enough, or coast through every assignment, or ask for more work.

The basic idea is that you add a project to their plate that’s a bit out of their comfort zone—forcing them to pick up new skills, flex their innovative muscles, and ultimately become stronger employees.

But of course, sometimes there are no resources to create these kinds of assignments for your team.

If that’s the case, you can keep your high-performing employees engaged by taking something away—or, by imposing the right constraints.

That may sound counterintuitive, given that these are your most competent employees—and the ones you can rely on to do their jobs well. Why would you want to restrict them in any way?

When I work with organizations, we do an exploratory exercise that helps leaders reframe their constraints as positive and motivating. In the case of your top performers, consider imposing constraints that fall into the following categories:

1. Time

For almost everyone, a task that’s less demanding becomes a major challenge if you impose a tight deadline.

In many situations, time constraints are already built in. But if they aren’t, here are some questions you can ask your employees to make a project more difficult:

  • To hit annual targets in nine months instead of 12, what would you do differently?
  • If you were going to be away for three months, what would you do to make sure things could run without you?
  • If you knew that you would be in your current role for no more than three years, what would you do differently?

These answers can also provide solutions as you deal with team health issues, pregnancies, role switches, and so on.

Whitney Johnson Build an A Team quote

2. Money

As with time, we think constrictively when funds are limited.

A postmortem performed on 200 failed startups found that the number one reason funded startups failed was that they ran out of cash; for unfunded startups, this was only reason number 10.

Adequate funding is not a panacea, and empty pockets don’t necessarily doom us.

If you have an idea, a simple question to ask is, “What is the simplest, cheapest way to test that idea?” Here are some other specific questions you can use to challenge your team:

  • If your project had to be profitable as a stand-alone entity, what would your business model be?
  • If you only had half of the current marketing budget, what would you do differently?
  • If you had to manufacture a product with 25% fewer components, what would you do?
  • If you had to cut your budget in half and still deliver the same product or service, what would you do?
  • If you had to assemble an A-team with only 80% of your current budget, what would you do?

After discussing these questions, ask your employees, “Why wouldn’t you do this now?”

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” This handy aphorism encapsulates the reality that desperation and disruption often go hand in hand. When there’s no ladder, we try a rope. When we’re at the end of our rope, we throw a belt over a zip-line and slide down it like James Bond.

When we’re out of money, when we’ve exhausted the possibilities available through conventional channels, we explore or invent a new channel.

Whitney Johnson Build an A Team quote

3. Expertise

The world needs experts, but it also needs novices. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from not knowing the conventions or “how it’s done.”

To see how a lack of expertise can become a valuable constraint, ask your employee:

  • What problems would your competitors who know little about the business be “dumb” enough to think they can solve?
  • If you were CEO for a day and ran the company based on your area of expertise, what would you change?
  • What if everyone on your team were new? No experts, only novices. What would you do differently?

Whitney Johnson Build an A Team quote

4. Buy-in

The challenge to expertise constraints is getting buy-in. When an expert has an idea, people are much more likely to green-light it.

So, one of the most important things you can do is require expertise-constrained team members to learn to solicit and get approval for their initiatives. Even when you know it makes sense to say “yes,” require your workers to make their case in a way that would earn buy-in.

To help them with this, you might ask:

  • If you had to get buy-in for your idea from a 10-year-old, what would you say?
  • If you had to explain your idea to a person who speaks a different language, how would you modify your approach?
  • Suppose you’re in marketing. How would you persuade the finance team to give your idea the go-ahead? For the product team, how would you adjust your approach?
  • When you’re ready to move up, how will you make the case that your move will be beneficial not only to you, but to the team you’re leaving behind?

Whitney Johnson Build an A Team quote

In order to help your employees grow—and keep your highest-performers satisfied and challenged—consider using one of these four constraints. You’ll encourage your team to think outside the box and own their accomplishments, and open up doors for even more success.

This excerpt was adapted from Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve by Whitney Johnson. It has been republished here with permission.

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