A common narrative today tells us that everyone should strive to be the BEST at whatever they’re pursuing. Number One, the “go to” guy or gal, the Subject Matter Expert (SME for you acronym lovers).

After all, who wants to be known as Number Two?

My decades in the military taught me there was no better feeling than seeing the words “My #1 of __” on a performance review, being the distinguished graduate from some training course, or taking home the winner’s trophy from a competition – shooting, flying, it didn’t matter what kind.

Corporate America doesn’t hand out near as many medals and ribbons as the military, so you can’t always tell who the best on the office team is by looking at their clothes. But it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who the “go to” or the morning meeting SME is. Who got the biggest end-of-year bonus is harder to identify than the star ladder-climbers, but that information is often the worst kept secret in the office.

So, what’s wrong with a little competition in the workplace? Nothing, so long as we don’t create an environment where people either feel like winners or like losers. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be the “go to” problem solver, the SME, or even get promoted.

Heresy, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some people just want to come into work and do their best until it’s time to leave. They don’t care about being a star performer, but they’re good, dependable teammates and willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep their job. They typically like what they do, and they sometimes even like the person they work for. An occasional pat on the back makes them feel like a valued member of the team, and that’s good enough for them.

They are just as critical to a successful team as electrons are to an atom. They may not be part of the nucleus – they may not even want to be – but an atom’s not an atom without electrons. Let them be attracted to – and orbit around – the why of your organization and not force them into an unnatural role. Truth be told, some companies add so many morons to the neutrons and protons in the nucleus, it’s a wonder anyone wants to get promoted at all.

So how do you find out what part of your organizational atom they want to be? Ask them! Life’s demands change over time and so will their level of confidence about their competence. Those directly influence their desire as to how close they want to be to the organization’s center of gravity.

What if someone turns down a promotion? I still remember the first time I turned down a job offer. I was told, “You will never be asked again!” If you have an “up or out” culture, you may want to re-think your process. The best outcome I can think of after putting someone in a position they don’t want (or that they’re not prepared for) is that they leave the position as soon as possible.

Treating them like a left back on the B-team isn’t the answer either – that’s a sure morale vacuum in the making. Obviously, the better way is to talk to them! Find out what’s holding them back… outside commitments? Skills? Knowledge? Distrust? If you think they’re right for the job, help assuage their concerns and challenges.

No, I’m not asking you to make their world rainbows and butterflies. I’m asking you to be a leader to the people you want to keep on your team. “Life’s tough; get tougher” might work in Infantry training, but few of you reading this are preparing your troops for battle.

And speaking of being a leader, make sure you know what keeps them feeling like a valued member of the team. How? Again, ask them! You might be amazed at the loyalty you inspire when you offer to cut someone some slack during a rough patch at home.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s okay for a leader to want a team of people who come to work every day ready to do their best. But I think you’re doing your team a disservice if you expect them to be the best every day. Ask a recovering perfectionist if you doubt me, but I’ve found that trying to be the best didn’t lead me to be the best version of me like trying to do my best did.

Whadda you think? Willing to try a different approach?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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