“I’m Not Good at Cutting”: A Lesson about Talents

2 Aug

The pre-school teacher had a goal that day– to have each student draw a character on construction paper, cut it out, and finish it so it could go home that afternoon with each child. On face value that seems like an innocent enough task that should be easily accomplished by each kid, right?

For our daughter Jill, it wasn’t quite so easy.

Jill is twenty-one now, will soon start her senior year at the University of Nebraska, and is considering options for graduate school. She is a delightful person with a great passion for life and promising career. But on this fateful day some seventeen years ago Jill ran into a teacher who was more interested in seeing her agenda accomplished than helping our daughter discover and develop her talents.

Jill is a meticulous person. She likes to have things “just so”, and when working on a task she deems important will take the necessary time to perform it to her exacting standards. She’s that way now, and was that way seventeen years ago. So when it came time for her to color and cut out the character at pre-school she was doing the job with the kind of attention that is part of her DNA, her basic character.

Some teachers might note her approach and even encourage the development of that behavior. But on this day, in the eyes of this so-called teacher, Jill was lagging behind the rest of the kids. She was not keeping up with the class and was in danger of not having her character cut out by the end of the day to take home. So as the school day neared its end and Jill wasn’t done what did the teacher do? She finished cutting the character out herself. Because Jill was careful, but slow, the task was taken away from her.

She came home that day in tears. Asked why she was crying, she said: “Mom, I’m not a good cutter.”

That’s what the teacher told her. I’m not kidding.

Why am I telling you a story from seventeen years ago about cutting figures out of construction paper? Because every day there are employees who are suffering the same fate, the fate of a workplace that doesn’t recognize their talents and tries to arrange the workplace to best nurture them.  Employees who should be using and developing their talents are doing work in conditions that don’t suit them, and because they are “slow cutters”—doing work that is not a good fit for them– their productivity and the productivity of their employer suffers.

Think about Jill for a moment. She was “slow” when it came to cutting, but look at the other side of equation. Do you know of work where attention to detail is important, where being meticulous is a valued asset? I can think of many companies who pay big bucks for people who have that kind of personality, who love doing detail-oriented work, who don’t seem to tire of it and look forward to the next time they get to use that talent. I can think of a gaggle of such jobs.

In fact, Jill holds one of those jobs right now. She works for a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. Most of the residents have needs that require numerous medicines be distributed accurately and on time. The supervisor of the home actually changed the schedule, including volunteering for part of a shift himself, so that Jill could perform the weekly medicine review as drugs were shipped to the home from the pharmacy. You see, Jill has a talent that is of significant value to her employer and the clients she serves. She may “cut slow”, but her boss doesn’t care about that. He cares about making sure that the correct medicines are administered at the right time at the right dosage to the vulnerable clients the agency has been entrusted to serve. Kudos to her boss for recognizing and utilizing that talent.

The companies we profile in Re-Engage do a far better job of helping their employees find roles that fit their strengths and where they see opportunities to grow and develop. It is one of the six universal drivers our research says contributes to highly engaged workplaces. One employee at a winning Best-Places-to-Work said:

“This is a great place to work, a place where an individual can utilize their talents and move freely amongst department to pursue their work interests and passions.”

Let’s help each and every employee with whom we work utilize their talents. Let’s get the meticulous folks doing jobs that fit them, the more creative folks doing creative stuff, and if you need a cutting job done quickly I’m sure there are people who are exceptional at that too.

Want to re-engage your staff? Stop ignoring their talents and start putting them to work.

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