Encouraging Your Masters

Skill is overrated. Even today on job listings, you will see people list “5-7 years experience” in some specific position or “skilled with” a myriad of tools and techniques.

What is ultimately important within a team, company, or any community is mastery. Skill is something you have; mastery is something you strive for. It may be necessary to screen for certain skills when hiring, but it is just as important to find someone who is seeking mastery.

Of course, even if I’ve hired someone with the correct skills who is seeking mastery, it’s my responsibility to ensure this person is encouraged to mastery. The three most important elements to me in encouraging a master are:

  1. Challenge. Books have been written on this single point, none so important as those by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. In short, human beings get “in the zone” when their limits are stretched, when they have to rise to a challenge that is within the realm of possibility. Research in gamification suggests people are most motivated when they are already 90% of the way to their goal. Constantly stretching that additional 10% is what keeps us engaged and keeps us learning.
  2. Domain. Admit it, it feels good to be the best at something. And it doesn’t feel good when someone else is better than you at your specialty. It’s natural to want a claim to your own territory, and in fact it’s crucial to the success of a small business (or department) that you perform a role that no one else can. Be careful about the danger of devaluing an employee’s domain when you reassign work, make decisions about their domain without their input, or hire new people to do what they see as their own specialty. Respect their domain and they will take better care of it than you ever could. Feeling insecure about their domain will also lead to territorialism, which will sabotage collaboration and innovation.
  3. Uniqueness. I could be a master of many skills that could be mastered equally by others, and can be replaced at a moment’s notice. But true mastery is irreplaceable; it is uniquely mine. This is why encouraging mastery in any technical skill must be a stepping-stone to a unique contribution, building a master’s perspective and not just a skill set. How can you identify the skills that will round out your master’s perspective? By listening. By connecting. By encouraging instead of ordering. Most people, especially those in high-performance workplaces, will seek out challenges that connect with their deeper interests (if they feel safe and encouraged to do so). I’m not saying that, from time to time, you won’t require someone to learn a certain skill just because someone in your team needs to know it. But understanding how the masters under your protection are growing, and not necessarily in the neat little boxes you’ve made for them, is crucial to their development into the truly powerful human force that will change your organization.

Keep in mind that a master isn’t something you construct. You are encouraging a human being to grow, within the context of a community, into a more specialized individual with a unique and ever-increasing ability to contribute to the larger picture.

(This post is part five of a series.)