Challenging Your Best: Dealing Proactively with the Bright But Bored

“We must accept life for what it actually is — a challenge to our quality without which we should never know of what stuff we are made, or grow to our full stature.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist.

Dealing Proactively with the Bright But Bored by  Laura Stack #productivityAmerica has enshrined the concept that we’re all created equal into the very foundations of our culture. As such, there’s also “the American Way,” which has unwritten ground rules around certain benchmarks of education, work ethic, intelligence, and drive. However, these expectations of equality doesn’t mean we’re all the same, though many people misinterpret it that way.

Certainly, some people are unequal, in the sense their average is a notch above the mean. You probably fall into this class yourself, since you’re reading this article. I didn’t say that as an attempt at flattery, but as fact. When bright people combine their intelligence with drive and hard work, they typically achieve more than everyone else.

If you’re in management, you undoubtedly have bright people working for you; ideally, everyone on your team fits the description. In one sense this represents good news, since it can result in much higher team productivity—the most talented workers can be up to twelve times more productive than their peers. But it does come with its drawbacks, as bright people tend to bore easily when faced with the status quo. When serious boredom sets in, their morale may crash and burn. Often, supercompetent workers end up stuck in unproductive ruts because life comes too easily. Others go the opposite direction, seeking risky behavior that can damage their careers if given free rein. If they get too bored with their jobs, they may just leave for potentially greener pastures.

Just like in school, smart kids can get bored and act out. The solution to this problem? CHALLENGE!

The Gold Ring

Forget offering bored employees a brass ring to grab for as the carousel passes by. Your brighter team members need gold rings to motivate them and drag them out of their ruts. Now, by “gold,” I don’t mean they’ll respond only to financial motivation, though that may help. What they really need is purpose: a chance to excel at something that matters. Workers who must focus on completing specific tasks consistently, or on helping those in need, tend to have lower “boreout” levels (to use a term invented by Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin for their 2007 book Diagnose Boreout).

In addition, implement these tactics:

1. Keep the communication lines wide open. As with almost everything else, communication rules here. Touch bases regularly with your top employees, and allow them open access to you. Keep an eye on them (without micromanaging), staying constantly alert for signs of boredom. Ask them what they’re working on that excites them.

2. Offer them tasks with a real chance of failure. This may sound like odd advice from the Productivity Pro, but we all have blue-sky projects and tasks that can prove extremely profitable if done well. They are challenging enough that most people can’t easily achieve them, so hand these to your bright and bored. This intellectual challenge will allow them to channel their boredom—and any risk-taking behavior associated with it—into potential success. If there’s no possibility of failure, where’s the thrill when they do succeed?

3. Keep them busy without busywork. Pile their plates full of a variety of different tasks, so when one palls, they can move on to another. Keep those plates full until they tell you they can’t handle anymore, and ask them to tell you when that occurs. Keep asking until they cry “Uncle.” All their tasks should produce valuable results worthy of their talents; busywork does nothing for the team’s bottom line. Don’t worry as much about overworking superstars. When Sirota Consulting conducted a study of 800,000 employees at 61 organizations in 2009, they found that workers with too little work posted an average job satisfaction rating of 49%—while those with too much work reported a job satisfaction rating of 57%. Don’t forget the operative word is challenge.

4. Help them fall in love with the process. Anyone can work hard when motivated. But in real life, real productivity means working through deadly dull patches and producing even when doing less-than-inspiring work. If you can help your bored employees fall in love with the process of marketing, coding, writing, speaking, or whatever their job entails, they’ll never suffer from boredom. They’ll always have something to anticipate or polish, especially when working toward those 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that can make anyone an expert in their specialty. So find ways to help them embrace the boredom that naturally comes with any job. How? Anticipate the reward that comes after the daily hum-drum—a sense of accomplishment.

5. Provide the right tools. Make sure they have all the up-to-date tools they need—whether that involves training, mentoring, technology, or all of the above. I talked with a group of seminar participants who expressed frustration over their old dinosaur computers. They estimated a 30-60 minute daily loss waiting for files to open and switching from one screen or program to another. The manager said he wouldn’t replace “perfectly good computers.” Smart guy—he’s paying much more in lost productivity than the machine.

6. Accentuate the positive. The easily bored have to learn that some of the tasks they encounter on their career ladder will prove to be dull. If they show signs of slippage, help them see that despite the boredom, they’re accumulating valuable experience, training, and (often) team building skills they’ll need to support their later success. Sometimes, these become exactly the rungs they require to move up the ladder. As boring as it may be, we all have to pay our dues.

Stepping It Up

Employee boredom can corrode morale and productivity not just in those bored, but also in those to whom they complain. There’s no reason to allow it when you can step up and actively fight it. You may not eliminate boredom altogether in your brighter employees, but if you keep an eye on it and implement these simple tips, you can definitely fight it to a draw.

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