Most of us played a game when we were young that involved selecting a favorite thing between two options. In elementary school, the game involves receiving two things that are equally pleasing, such as ice cream and cake. By middle school, the options become a little darker. The game typically involves two rather terrible options, like being bitten by an alligator and falling off a cliff. The player selects the less horrendous of the options as his or her peers laugh. As the haze of the teenage years moves away, we return to the better of two options game. It might be as simple as where would you rather vacation: the beach or mountains?
When someone answers that they would like to vacation at the beach and the mountains, most of us would agree with the answer even if we felt that “both” is not one of the options. Who would not want to visit both? Similarly, even the most fashion conscious person will enjoy old jeans and a tee shirt some days for a change. Emotions and feelings play an important role in this duality, but in most cases, we should accept that we are multi-dimensional beings that can hold competing ideas and desires.
How does this human trait influence us in the workplace? Although preference by definition pertains to a specific option possessing higher utility for an individual, most of us operate with mixed preferences. Who has not wanted to be the office superstar and parent of the year? However, even as these feelings occupy us each day, as leaders we assume that people work from a single and primary dimension. Most workplaces have stereotypical categories to capture a person’s individual emphasis: family man or woman, work to play, climber, shark, or time doer. Once granted, these images follow us for long periods of our work careers.
When something outside of the norm occurs, how do we explain when someone exceeds expectations, develops a great plan that really works, makes a big sale, or excels in a new area? Our first inclination might be to assume a cosmic accident occurred. Although chance affects us all, a better explanation arises from mixed preferences. In other words, actions and events unlocked the person’s potential. Most people want to succeed and by removing barriers we increase the chance of collective success.
A key part of being a great leader starts with understanding our employees work with multiple dimensions and finding the “code” to unlocking their potential by moving the continuum the right direction. What can we do today to unlock potential?
- expose employees to new things;
- take the time and really listen to what they are saying;
- care about your employees as much as you want them to care about your team and organization; and
- find out what motivates them and customize the work experience for each employee.