Give Employees Room to Stretch

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If you read our post about the “Seven traits of an engaged employee,” then you’re familiar with the idea propagated by best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Pink that people are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Stretch assignments are a great way to give employees all three of those motivators.

Employee Engagement

What is a stretch assignment?

Stretch assignments can look vastly different, from allowing employees to work on “passion projects,” like the program at Google that lead to the development of Google Earth, Google AdWords and Google Mail, to being given responsibility for managing an intern or volunteer.

At its essence, a stretch assignment is simply a project or task that challenges employees by asking them to step outside of their typical duties.

Particularly when allowing employees to engage in “passion projects,” stretch assignments can fulfill the employee’s need for both autonomy and purpose, while also allowing them to work toward mastery.

Stretching is good for employee and employer

Elliott Masie did a great job spelling out the benefits of stretch assignments on the Chief Learning Officer blog:

  • Leadership development: stretch assignments not only develop leadership skills in your employees, they also make employees believe in themselves as leaders.
  • Career focus: stretch assignments give employees the freedom to reach outside their role and discover new roles or tasks where they might want to focus their career.
  • Cheap and effective development: stretch assignments fill a dual role of both providing the employee with new experiences and skills while also allowing them to produce work product for the company.
  • Feedback: stretch assignments allow for individualized feedback that comes at more regular intervals than annual reviews.
  • Retention: stretch assignments can allow for a deeper connection between the employee and the employer and may allow employees to engage in their passion while also contributing to the company.

How do you develop the right stretch routine?

The answer to that question is going to be unique to each company, with factors like your size and industry greatly influencing your decisions.  If you think you’d struggle to convince the people within your organization to go with a more intensive program like Google’s, where employees devote 20 percent of their time to “passion projects,” start with simpler tasks that need to be done within your organization anyway.

Provisional, an employment firm in Spokane, Wash., gives some examples:

  • Managing a volunteer or intern
  • Executing a new or important company project
  • Participating in the company’s strategic planning process
  • Turning around a failing project, department or operation
  • Organizing and leading an important company event or meeting

Assigning these tasks to up-and-coming employees is a great way to develop their leadership skills and develop their talent.

Be flexible in establishing your program

If your company is more open to outside-of-the-box thinking, let your employees tell you what they want to work on. One way to do this is to meet with employees individually and ask them what types of projects they’d like to work on or what skills they’d like to develop, and then use that information to assign them to a project you wouldn’t normally have tapped them to complete before you knew their interests.

Another method companies are using is to convene small groups, perhaps for an after-work pizza party, and let the creative juices flow. Ask employees to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming product, project or campaign. When a good idea arises, let that employee take the lead on moving it forward.

Taking risks is part of the process: here’s how to mitigate them

Assigning stretch projects isn’t without risk, however. William Macaux, who wrote on the subject for the Association for Talent Management explains, “Of course, any company that uses stretch assignments as a development strategy must balance the risks and rewards of putting important work in the hands of people who they know are somewhat lacking in experience for the project. Given this context, it is only prudent to inquire as to how management might mitigate risks of failure while optimizing the learning of their future leaders.” 

One way to mitigate this risk is through courses you can develop and deliver via a learning and engagement platform. Instead of making an eligible employee wait for the next available live training course, having on-demand courses within your system will allow employees to begin training as soon as a goal or new project has been identified.

Make sure your leaders have warmed up

It’s also imperative that current management and leadership are involved throughout the process, both to monitor progress but also to effectively communicate how the assignment will make them a successful part of the organization and how their efforts will contribute to the organization’s overall mission.

If an employee understands what it takes to be successful for them, they will proactively deliver on those expectations without being asked. Remember, people are motivated by autonomy, purpose and mastery. Provide employees with opportunities for those things and they’ll begin to act like an owner, and when employees act like owners, they put forth the extra effort and care about the outcome.

What types of stretch projects have you implemented? I’d love to hear different ideas. Share in the comments below.

Jeff Weber,
VP, People and Place

Bridge Blog

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