At my home, I have a pile of sticks that sit on a ledge just outside the front door: long ones, short ones, stubby ones, sticks with twigs and branches, others in the shape of y's and t's, and some like little trees. Sometimes I even find sticks around the house and in the car. This is because my youngest child loves to collect sticks. We could be walking just about anywhere and if he finds one, he holds onto it and brings it home. He is a natural collector.

While some may wonder about this little pile of sticks at our front doorstep, I view it as a reminder of what my youngest child loves to do. Our children offer us clues every day about their natural interests. These are valuable clues for us as we begin to guide them in the direction of their future careers. We can uncover these clues by observing what they like to do and by asking the right questions. As adults, we often ask kids, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" How might it change the conversation if we asked a slightly different question, "What do you like to do?"

As it happens, while I'm a parent, I'm also a full-time manager and see parallels in my ongoing conversations about development with my team members at various stages in their careers. While parents have an opportunity to note natural interests in their children, managers also have a significant opportunity to develop those on their teams by understanding what naturally motivates them.

Everywhere I look, I see evidence that natural motivation is important. Recently, I listened to a story on the radio about young workers who have a "side hustle" in addition to their full-time employment. The part of the conversation that caught my ear explained how millennials take on second jobs because, as described on the show, it allows them "to hold on to their dreams." As a part of the story, the host of the show interviewed a young man who hosts a podcast called "The Side Hustle Show." The tagline of his show is "Because your nine to five may make you a living, but your five to nine makes you alive!"

Understanding this human need to do what we love represents a big opportunity for managers as we aim to retain talent. In fact, Gallup's research says, 60% of millennials in the U.S. workforce -- who account for 38% of the workforce -- say they are currently looking for a new job opportunity. As managers aiming to engage our teams and keep talent onboard, we need to focus on "making associates alive" during their nine to five by doing our best to understand how their natural interests can align with the performance aims of our teams.

And there's another benefit to considering your team members' opinions when shaping their roles: Gallup's research reveals that, while just 30% of employees strongly agree that their manager involves them in setting their goals at work, those who do strongly agree with this statement are 3.6 times more likely than other employees to be engaged. And the benefits of a fully engaged workforce include everything from improved retention rates to increased productivity and profitability.

One member of my team recently suggested we experiment with "job crafting," or building a job around someone, which piqued my interest to learn more. Paul J. Zak explains job crafting in a Harvard Business Review article "The Neuroscience of Trust" as a key way to facilitate building trust in the workplace.

"When companies trust employees to choose which projects they'll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most."

The article goes on to describe how one company implements this policy by sending out a group of project needs and allowing team members to "self-organize into work groups." Employees, in essence, are allowed to pursue what they naturally like to do. They are then held accountable to specific job outcomes on the projects they choose. Zak's assertion is that people will enjoy, and succeed at, work they are naturally drawn to do.

For my own team, I'll admit that aligning individuals perfectly with their interests is a work in progress. I expect it will be an ongoing investment on my part and theirs. I am able to track progress on this as I review our Gallup Q12 employee engagement survey results. I pay particular attention to our score on this item: "At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day." My team's most recent results showed improvement, but this remains an area of opportunity for us. We are not alone. In fact, according to Gallup's research paper Re-Engineering Performance Management, only one in three employees strongly agree that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

For managers to make a difference, we have to make individual interests a part of our ongoing conversations with our team members. There is a significant opportunity here, as Gallup's research indicates that only 19% of employees say they receive feedback from their manager once a year or less, and only 34% of employees strongly agree that their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on. In such conversations, managers like myself can learn from coaches who ask powerful questions to draw out insights about the individuals they are coaching.

  • "What does a best day at work look like for you?"
  • "Tell me about your favorite job? What about it appealed to you?"

  • "What do you most love about your current work?"

An extreme question could be, "What were you meant to do?" Or my favorite, simply, "What do you like to do?" Asking questions gives us an opportunity to ensure the work our teams do remains aligned with their interests and goals.

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As we listen intently to the answers, we will gain insight into what makes that person "alive." Next, as managers, our challenge is to consider the daily activities of the job role at hand and align them whenever possible with what makes that person alive.

So, as a parent, I look intently for my children's unique interests, and I try to help them refine and develop skills about those leanings. One day, I will watch my "stick collector" graduate, and I wonder where his natural collecting talents will lead him.

As a manager, I bring this same focus to work. I watch carefully for the natural inclinations of my team members, and I help them lean into the work they're most excited about. Ultimately, I believe that helping them reach their fullest potential often begins with a simple question that creates actionable awareness: "What do you like to do?"

Learn more about how Gallup can help you align your employees' strengths and talents to achieve greater performance:

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