Challenging Assignments for High Performing Employees

Last week, one of my coaching clients asked, “How can I continually challenge my high performing employees?” It’s an important question. Interesting and challenging work motivates our employees to put in extra effort, learn new skills, and decreased the likelihood that they will leave our organization.

For work to be challenging, it must meet the following three requirements.

Three Requirements of challenging work:

  1. The work requires the employee to develop and use a new skill set. For instance, I had a manufacturer production manager who excelled at his job, instead of letting him become stale, I assigned him the task of training the sales managers on the manufacturing process. It was a stretch assignment where he learned facilitation skills while using his knowledge of the manufacturing process.
  2. The work is a step to a higher purpose. The work should connect to the employee’s career or personal goals. I had an employee who wanted to move into a managerial position, so I asked her to lead a small project for the department. During the project, she had the chance to prove to me that she had the necessary leadership skills to become a manager. It also gave me an opportunity to mentor her on where she could become a more effective leader.
  3. The work should have a risk of failure built into it. The employee should feel that if they do not succeed, there would be a negative consequence on their career. This external pressure increases the employee to focus on the challenge at hand. I was once asked to develop and present our department’s twenty-six million dollar budget to the chief financial officer. I knew if I did not do my job well, I would impact our department for the next fiscal year and probably hurt my standing within the organization.

Note of caution: What may be challenging for one employee might be overwhelming to another or might be trivial to another. It is essential we know our employee’s performance level and what will motivate them and what won’t. The goal of providing an employee with a challenging assignment is to improve their value to the organization.

Ways to challenge employees:

  • Require the employee to learn something new. This act puts the employee in the role of the novice, asking them to start anew, focus on the foundational information that will challenge them to more significant insights about their present level of performance. In the process of learning something new, our brain triggers changes in neural pathways, providing us different ways to look at old problems.
  • Change the parameters of their job: What is easy to complete in one hour is much more challenging to achieve in thirty minutes. Shift parameters such as time, budget, supplies, number of clients, etc. to challenge the employee to work at a higher level. In working with one company, the general manager and I continued to add responsibilities to the team until the job was increasingly challenging. We finally stopped when we notice a reduction in overall performance.
  • Push the employee out of their comfort zone: All of us love living in our comfort zone, it is where we are secure, psychologically safe, and most confident, but we are not challenged. By asking an employee to step outside of their comfort zone by doing a new responsibility, working with a new team, or giving them a stretch assignment, challenges them to improve their performance.
  • Involve the employee in higher-level decision making. Asking the employee to think at a higher level, requires them to change their perspective challenging assumption they may have. For instance, I had a supervisor whom I knew was ready for more responsibilities, so I ask him to manage the department’s accounts. This task not only required him to learn new skills, but he also challenged him to work at a higher level of decision making.
  • Have them mentor another employee: Working with another employee to help improve their performance can be challenging to our high performing employee because they will need to use different influencing skills to help the other employee be successful.
  • Ask them to change behavior. One of the most challenging things we can do in life is to change one of our behaviors. Unfortunately, all of us have behaviors or habits that are holding us back from being successful. The best approach to this is to use Marshall Goldsmith’s Stakeholder Center Coaching process where the individual’s stakeholders help the employee identify one behavior if changed would positively impact the employee’s performance. Then working with the employee, the manager can develop a plan to change the behavior. For most us, this will be the hardest thing we do in our career.

Motivation is necessary for an employee to reach a higher level of performance. Based on my twenty-five years plus managing employees, challenging assignments are one of the most effective ways to help high-performing employees continue to be motivated. Challenging projects tap into an employee’s intrinsic motivation; where they ask themselves to perform at a higher level.  

Before Challenging the Employee Questions to Ask Yourself?

  1. Is the employee ready to take on an additional challenge at work? Is their performance strong enough that would allow them to take on additional responsibility?
  2. Is the employee motivated to take their performance to the next level? Alternatively, in other words, what reason does the employee want to perform at a higher level? What we have found is that those employees who have a high level of intrinsic motivation will be the drivers of their organization and will want to improve. Extrinsic motivation is a short term fix but will not keep employees performing at a high level.
  3. What knowledge, skills, abilities, or experience do they need to have to advance their career? (Career advancement should not always be about moving up in the hierarchy of the organization but giving them opportunities to try new things, oversee different areas, and of course get prepared where they can make more money.)
  4. What task, responsibility, project, or assignment will stretch them while at the same time, not hurt the organization too bad if they fail?
  5. What support can you offer, so they are prepared for this challenging time? Are there classes/seminars you can send them to? Is there knowledge you can share? Is there a mentor in the organization that would help them be better employees?
  6. Can you build milestones/path for them to get ready to take on a much bigger responsibility?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More stories that matter

Letting Go

It is the hardest of changes…letting go. People ask, “Why have you been successful in your career?” I said, “Knowing when to let go.”  Imagine

Read More »

How can I serve you?

Have a question about leadership or management?

Ask away! I read and reply to every question.

Ask John