Managing Hermit Heroes

Suzanne, a talented engineer at a global aerospace company, was so shy she could hardly look me in the eye. A few months of assertiveness coaching greatly expanded her "comfort zone" and she blossomed into a confident team player. Now she's a lead systems engineer and assistant department manager, heading up teams of dozens of staffers that have greater seniority.

Knowing how to maximize the abilities of unique personalities efficiently and appropriately is an indispensable but little-noticed leadership aptitude. Skillful personnel development has always been the hallmark of exceptional companies, It's especially vital in today's downsized, streamlined workplace. Fortunately all managers can develop a radar-like ability to spot untapped talents that lie within their employees. Here are some suggestions on how to bring out the best in reclusive, yet talented employees in your organization.

Recognize the differences: Remind yourself that skills and characteristics vary from individual to individual. Each has his or her own different tolerance for assignments such as managing others, making presentations, and organizing events. Encourage introverts in your organization to stretch their comfort zones, but be careful not to overwhelm them. I asked Suzanne to take a first small step toward greater confidence by delivering a five-minute briefing to just a few colleagues in her own office. Remember that reserved personalities typically feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings and need time to spread their wings.

Value hidden abilities: Train your staff to effectively evaluate the skill sets of employees during the hiring process and then routinely afterward. Doing so will uncover proficiencies that may never come up otherwise. Good steps to take might include collaborating with human resources to create a simple questionnaire or check-list pertaining to skills and experience for your staff to use during the interview process and then pursue intermittently on an ongoing basis. Review the test results with human resources and managers and take action by determining where these newly discovered abilities can be put to use. Ensure that whatever process you choose ensures that interpersonal "hallway" interactions will be taken into account, in addition to work-performance metrics.

Communicate appropriately: Quiet reflection and unheralded achievement are often the stock-in-trade of "hidden" performers, so don't expect everyone to jump in during meetings or contribute instantly when asked. Practice providing further opportunities for input beyond group discussions. Hermit heroes often turn out to be an organization's deepest thinkers, capable of providing unique and invaluable perspectives, so make an effort to solicit their input. For example, send out agenda materials prior to meetings, giving everyone time to formulate their thoughts. Whenever practical, solicit written suggestions to give voice to those who are uncomfortable at speaking out publicly. A surprisingly large percentage of people prefer to write their ideas out rather than say them in front of a group. Written input is often more outspoken and thoughtful. Consider creating small "task forces" to tackle specific topics. Introverts and shy types find it easier to talk to each other in an intimate group.

Help build confidence: Many talented professionals, even senior executives, sometimes need merely to develop an "I can do this" confidence that others possess instinctively. Start small by assigning reticent employees modest tasks that expand their preconceived notions of themselves and their limits. Comfort-zone-expanding exercises can include conducting a small meeting, managing a collaborative project with others, and presenting a report in a group setting. Be sure to acknowledge progress and take every opportunity to recognize and praise good work. Each step they take forward that is greeted with positive feedback will add to their value as team members.

Encourage growth: Promote professional development "best practices" throughout your organization. Extroverts and introverts alike benefit from managerial guidance, training, and coursework that will move their careers forward. The result can be a more productive, vibrant workplace and a habitually industrious and motivated team. As in Suzanne's case, the combination of assertiveness training and individual coaching can pay enormous dividends to both the employer and the individual. When people are motivated to grow, they often respond by learning new and valuable skills.

The bottom line: Why not make it your personal priority to seek out hard-working hermit heroes wherever you may find them? By ensuring that their talents are harnessed to best advantage, you'll gain upside and quite possibly see measurable benefits that reach all the way to the top.

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