Jan 16, 2014

It was evident my boss was losing patience with me, but honestly, it couldn’t be helped.

The source of his frustration? I’d released my subordinate from any obligation to meet a “stretch” goal of completing an HR procedures manual after concluding that she just wasn’t much good at it.

The truth is that the manual required more nuanced thinking than the employee was displaying at the time — an ability to reason in gray, not just black and white — as well as more work experience than she possessed.

Not everyone is good at everything

I was fine with my decision. As I said, this had been a stretch goal. The employee had tried to meet it, but the assignment wasn’t a good fit. Not a big deal.

There were plenty of other things to be done that she was really good at, so why force this issue? The manual wasn’t urgent. I’d do it myself.

But my boss didn’t get it. A smart employee should be capable of doing (or at least learning how to do) anything and everything, was his way of looking at things.

Clearly I didn’t agree. Not everyone is good at everything, and unless an employee is incapable of doing much of anything the job requires, I don’t see the problem. Instead, I see a BIG problem with failing to accommodate and capitalize on an employee’s abilities while expending precious energy unnecessarily insisting she do something she’s not gifted to do.

Making a case for ‘outlier’ employees

I was reminded of this conversation while reading The Case for Hiring ‘Outlier’ Employees, which discusses the benefits of hiring people who behave or think a little differently than most others. Authors Robert D. Austin and Thorkil Sonne present Sonne’s company, Specialisterne, a Copenhagen-based software-testing firm, as a perfect example of this principle.

Specialisterne (which means “The Specialists” in Danish) employs 51 employees, including 37 with autism. Sonne, the former director of a software venture and the father of an autistic child, started the company with two goals in mind:

  1. Providing employment for people with autism; and,
  2. Capitalizing on the peculiar strengths of some individuals with autism, such as extraordinary memory and high detail orientation, two qualities that are apparently ideal for software testing.

Making a practice of hiring individuals others might not consider employable is not exactly the same thing as recognizing that not all people are good at all tasks, but the two ideas are most definitely related.

And, each philosophy accomplishes a similar result — ensuring that those who are best able to do a thing do it — while at the same time celebrating what’s special about someone instead of moaning about what isn’t.

Focusing on what people do well

Eventually my boss got tired of our discussion and left me to manage as I pleased (no complaints about that here), and I’m confident I did the right thing.

Perhaps there’s a fine line between failing to develop someone and recognizing her true talents and letting her be, but if so I’m comfortable with that. I’m also comfortable with the notion that not everyone is ready to be taught everything now —and you can’t teach experience anyway.

In the HBR blog, article Austin and Sonne write,

The world needs all the talent it can get. Human society can’t afford to set aside people who are different. Their perspectives are desperately needed if we are to innovate our way through today’s global challenges.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and to their comment I’d add a little bit about the dangers of letting bias, unrealistic expectations, and inflexibility get in the way, too. People are unique, and smart businesses don’t ever forget that.