Man Facing Whiteboard With Equations

Give a star a task they can't do

The benefits of giving a wickedly difficult challenge to your smart, resilient but often easily bored team member.

Written by Dr. Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Man Facing Whiteboard With Equations

Two  things  star  performers  often  need  are  more  challenges and humility. Giving them a task they can’t do will achieve both these outcomes.

The star performers are easy to spot.

They are typically exceptionally smart, resilient, quick to pick up detail and able to achieve performance outcomes with apparently little effort.

They are also very easily bored by mere mortals, low on tolerance, high on expectations related to their career progression and generally high maintenance.

This spectrum of very positive and potentially negative behaviour traits poses a conundrum for the leader.

Gaining the benefits of the star’s talents whilst having them feel and be seen to be part of the wider team is obviously the ideal outcome.

One way to tackle this conundrum is to allocate the person an ultra-challenging task; a wickedly difficult challenge that if solved, would benefit the entire team.

As their manager, you still need to provide all the support and encouragement you would to any other employee or any other task, but you and your star performer will be aware this is an exceptional task.

Your intent is not to create the circumstances for them to fail but to provide whatever resources are available to help them succeed.

Two possible outcomes from this approach.

The first arises from a failure to solve the problem inherent in the task. The individual is likely to be frustrated at the outcome, humbled by their lack of success, but still grateful that you thought enough of them to allocate the challenge to them.

There is also a strong likelihood they will continue to think about the task future in the hope of finding a solution at some future point.

Their self-confidence and resilience will ensure they bounce back quickly.

The second possible outcome is that they solve the problem and complete the task.

In this scenario, the organisation has a big win, the individual’s status is raised within the team and you have the opportunity to reward and recognise a great piece of work.

The downside of course is the person’s self-confidence soars higher and they become insufferable. Although not ideal, this may not be a lot different than it was before and at least now you have solved a really difficult problem.

At a wider level, there are plenty of opportunities to stretch all staff with more difficult or challenging assignments.

It is rare to hear someone say “my job is intellectually too hard for me”.

They might say they are too busy, so you may need to reallocate some tasks to free time for a new assignment, but it is unusual for staff to request a dumbing down of their role.

Similarly, skilful leaders will look for opportunities to get a greater contribution from their team, get their input on key tasks and a fresh perspective on recurring problems.

One small step in the next 24 hours

Reflect on two or three difficult challenges facing your team.

Define the problem and a desirable outcome for each one. Then consider who on your team would benefit most from being allocated one of these stretch assignments.

When you meet with each person, emphasise the importance of the task and your commitment to helping them be successful.

Also commit to working harder to integrate the star performer into the larger team.