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Management Benefits of Recognizing Skills and Strengths

It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows. – Epictetus

All supervisors are responsible for improved manpower utilization. But supervisors cannot be expected to know everything about the people they manage. Why should they when few men and women know all their own skills? Thus, making the best use of available manpower becomes largely a matter of guesswork.

So long as managers do not have a system that reliably identifies the self-motivating skills of men and women, their manpower utilization efforts will be far short of the optimum. They will, of course, seek and use improved ways to increase both efficiency and job satisfaction - such as job enrichment, management by objectives, and organization development - but the work combinations that employees find self-actualizing will continue to be elusive.

Much of the guesswork in manpower utilization can be removed only by the subordinates themselves. It is true that most don't know all their skills, that most have hidden talents. But it is no longer true that the prime talents that move persons to unique contributions must remain a mystery. Identifying their strengths and skills can clarify their existence, their present level of development, and their direction of growth or potential. Further, it makes clear their prime talents or strengths in ways that encourage the person to cooperate with technological and other changes taking place with increasing frequency.

Identifying strengths and skills can be viewed as kind of a test. But it requires voluntary cooperation from the subordinate, and cooperative exploration with the supervisor. It deals with selected biographical information from the person. It is concerned with clarifying the pattern of skills that has been used in making his achievements or successes happen. This combination of factors takes it out of the realm of psychological testing and standardized scores, beyond the limitations of bias.

Why should you be concerned with this? Isn't this all a function of the personnel or training department? Good questions for a manager to ask. The answer is that a major concern of the manager is performance, productivity, quality in performance. All these are increasingly dependent on people and on knowing what makes people self-motivated. It is in this area that differences in manpower utilization will mean differences in organizational profitability or effectiveness.

Attitudes of people toward their work, and the attitudes of management toward recognition of their motivated skills, can make a big difference in the effectiveness of any organization, public or private.

There is a tremendous difference between motivated and unmotivated skills. Today that difference can be seen in any typing pool with 20 or more typists. Some do their work accurately, with ease, speedily, and with enjoyment. Others view their work as a chore. They make too many mistakes, not enough to get fired, but type in fits and starts, a little sloppily, and are relatively uninterested in what they are doing. The small first group are likely to be inner-motivated. The second group are probably unmotivated, which means they would find themselves inner-motivated m other types of work. There also will be a middle group.

It usually is possible to make jobs more interesting and agreeable to employees, and this should be done as much as possible. But when the major effort is on job enrichment, it could mean that management has given up looking for inner-motivated persons. It also means that management is accepting responsibility for training and retraining its employees to meet changing job needs. A few hours of career planning conversation could make some of the training unnecessary, and thus reduce costs.

The following three examples will show how identifying self-motivated skills can work at several levels for managers. The examples will be followed by a summarized description of how this works.

A few years after a 29-year-old bachelor had returned from a tour of military duty in Japan, he had given up a short series of what he felt were dead-end jobs. He believed it more honest to quit than to stay bored and lapse into carelessness. He was asked to describe some of the experiences he felt he had done best and had enjoyed most.

His greatest achievement - this cum laude business school graduate said - happened when he was asked by a general if he had any idea of what he would like to do in Japan. He replied that he would like to find out what was behind the huge stacks of packing cases he saw on the docks in San Francisco and Tokyo, and on the decks of cargo ships all the way across the Pacific. He noted that most of the markings seemed to be identical.

His investigation revealed a costly foul-up in the military replacement order process and helped save many millions of dollars. He discovered that a specification had been misinterpreted and that five replacements parts had been ordered for each component of each airplane, even down to replacements for the screws and rivets.

Among his other achievements he listed buying a wardrobe of 20 handmade suits of the highest quality in Hong Kong. The cheapest cost $25; the best $35. He couldn't understand why almost everyone else bought the cheapest suits. Even the best quality cost considerably less than the cheapest readymade suit back home.

Another achievement was reorganizing his college fraternity house. He changed the meals, the social events, and the prices. For the first time, the organization became self-supporting.

His fourth achievement was planning and managing the yearbook so that it broke even for the first time in more than 20 years.

Each of the latter two achievements required him to conceive a management plan, gain the cooperation of others in agreeing on a budget and participating in activities, coordinating the timing of events, and maintaining the necessary records.

He was well able to do the detail work assigned to him in the accounting firms for which he had worked. He was skilled at it, but unmotivated. The achievement data on just these four of his experiences showed he was clearly motivated to express initiative in problem solving, to plan and organize, and to manage or control costs. He could gain the cooperation of co-workers and lead them. He demanded high quality. He was curious and observant about matters that might be over-costly and he would look for ways to eliminate difficulties.

He stopped looking for a job that would use just his accounting training and experience, and began to look for one that offered him an opportunity to apply his problem-solving and managing skills and that used accounting as a tool. He quickly moved from assistant controller to controller of a leading manufacturing corporation. His salary doubled in the next three years because of his increased productivity, the rapidity with which he learned, and his corporate political skills.

The point of this for a manager is that a search for strengths or motivated skills in people can be done and that these strengths are the ones that produce payoff for all kinds of organizations. This search for strengths is a far cry from the protective traditional approach of searching for weaknesses in order to avoid making mistakes in hiring. That approach hasn't worked, and personnel and other managers know it.

The second example involves a messenger, a high school graduate.

He was 18. His greatest achievement was being named a substitute high school mathematics teacher during the summer, although he had no college degree. Second on his list was his election as president of a community social club where almost everyone was more than twice his age. Third, he was president of the student council; fourth, he was valedictorian; and fifth, he was elected president of the junior class.

Why should a young man with such mathematical, leadership, communicating, and organizing talents be serving as a messenger? Why wasn't he in college? Simple. His sense of responsibility made him feel it essential to earn a living and help support the family. His father had died suddenly shortly after the youth had given his valedictory speech.

Again, the search for strengths can and does reveal a pattern of self-motivating skills. Beyond that, the pattern indicates the kinds of training the person will pick up quickly, and what training will lift the total quality of his performance.

The third example is at a totally different level - a relatively unskilled laborer who operated an old-fashioned polishing drum for some 35 years.

At 61 he believed he was too old to learn anything new that would provide him with a self-supporting income. He said at a reemployment workshop that he expected to become dependent on public welfare within a few months after he was terminated, when his savings would run out. He had been enrolled in the workshop by his company, which was about to terminate him because his job had been automated.

“If you feel that way,” I said, “Why did you volunteer for this workshop?”

“I'll be straight with you,” he said. “I don't think this will help me get another job. I don't think anyone would hire me. But the company is paying for it, and I'm getting time off with pay, and you never know what good can come out of trying something.”

The laborer, Joe, was asked to list his greatest achievement. He said it was fixing the broken stock on a rifle, “so good that the owner couldn't see where I'd repaired it.”

“How did you do that?” he was asked. He told about his lathe and hand tools accumulated over more than 20 years. Sometimes he went hungry in order to buy a tool he wanted. His other achievements involved making well-structured cabinets, tables, paneling, and repairing wood products. Although he took no money for his labor, his work earned him high praise and respect.

“Perhaps you should be a cabinet maker and repair furniture,” he was told. He replied: “Nobody would give me a job like that because I've never worked for no one.”

But he did get a job like that. And his rate of pay more than doubled. He was, and is, a self-motivated worker who gets joy from what he is doing.

Heads Off Costs

In this instance, the point is that Joe was able to change careers without the need for spending any money on retraining. The byproducts include these facts: he is not collecting tax money through welfare checks; he is paying taxes; he is a self-respecting, joyful citizen, rather than the despairing, dependent person he had anticipated becoming.

Can management afford to have employees know what their motivated skills are? Isn't it possible that people with that knowledge will be restless, create problems, be more likely to quit? Anything and everything is possible, of course. But management has been talking for a long time about the benefits of having the right man in the right job - how that would reduce absenteeism and sickness, increase productivity, improve human relationships, and otherwise contribute to cost reduction. All those benefits are bound to be accompanied by some problems. There are risks and they deserve examination.

Perhaps the employee will get “bigheaded” when he knows his motivated skills. That's a big “perhaps,” because, if it happens, all kinds of problems could result. But one of the truisms in life is that people become modest when they know their skills are respected. This sometimes is said in another way: a person can “afford” to be conceited only until he is successful.

In an environment that encourages and helps employees to recognize their motivated skills, there is likely to be better communication between employees and supervisors, more understanding of department and organizational goals, and more cooperation toward achieving them.

This must sound like the millennium. An explanation of how recognizing motivated skills works - and the examples have oversimplified what happens - will make it clear that it is not the answer to all personnel problems. It is a tool that makes it easier to identify problems and solutions. This tool can be used for many different purposes.

The system can be used in small groups, and it is much less costly when used that way it begins by assuming that there is excellence in each person and that there are many skills that make up this excellence. This combination of skills is more likely to be expressed in the experiences a man or woman feels are his achievements, rather than in other kinds of experiences; and these skills will tend to be most concentrated in what the individual feels are his greatest achievements.

Recognizing motivated skills helps a person remember many of his achievements and identify several of his greatest ones. He then is helped, usually with the assistance of a small group, to study these greatest achievements and to clarify which skills have most consistently been applied in making them happen. These are his strengths, his inner-motivated skills, and they are likely to be used when his achievements happen again.

However, this process separates his strengths from the names or titles given to his different achievements - whether these be repairing a rifle stock, being valedictorian, or managing the yearbook. The process affirms his strengths, affirms him as having competencies. Because these competencies now are free from titles, they become more adaptable to combinations that fit other job titles. In other words, he tends to lose his attachment to a job title, and becomes freer to cooperate with change and contribute to it.

In addition, because he knows the best that is in him, he can afford to look for and encourage the best in others. This attitude makes for more harmonious working relationships, especially when it comes to disagreements or conflicts. This is so because it then becomes possible for men to respect one another's competencies, to learn from each other as they disagree while working toward solving a problem.

“What about weaknesses?” you might ask. Everybody has some. Recognizing motivated skills discloses weaknesses in two ways - first, by their omission and second, by clarifying the strength-weakness relationship. When physical labor and leadership do not show up in a person's motivated skills pattern, it is reasonable to assume he is not motivated to do physical labor or to lead a group. This does not mean he cannot do these things; instead, it means he probably will be uncomfortable and frustrated if these tasks constitute the bulk of his regular job.

On the other hand, when these things show up strong in his achievements, but do not appear in his job, he will quickly become frustrated and try to use them - often in ways that raise problems.

Another example is when a man shows great strength in family relationships. If you ask him to take an important three-month business trip abroad without his family, you will find that his family relations “strength” becomes a “weakness” in regard to the organization's needs. Many more examples could be given of this strength-weakness relationship.

Much depends on where you sit as to which is weakness and which is strength. What is clear is that the knowledge of a person's motivated skills gives you more accurate information with which to make judgments on what to assign him and how to present changes to him in ways that gain his cooperation and support. You also can determine what assignments to avoid giving him.

These are advantages that make the manager's job easier. They afford him more time for managerial duties of greater importance. They enable him to be more trustful of his subordinates, and really be more effective in utilizing manpower.

Identifying self-motivated skills of employees is not easy, and it does take time. But it may be the only way now available to add the important factor of self-motivation to other behavioral science approaches such as job enrichment, management by objectives, and the many strategies of organization development.

Recognizing motivated skills and identifying strengths should be administered by personnel departments. If it is, it can help establish new usefulness to the management of that department, and give it a kind of credibility it long has needed.

Society | Self-Help | Work


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