Over time, it's easy to begin thinking of your employees as types: There's the well-organized one. The one with the chaotic personal life. The one who's slow but reliable. The one who's a bit odd.
The danger, of course, is that pigeonholing people minimizes their complexity. It also may be undermining your ability to get the most from them. Here are some examples of turned-around perceptions:
The distracted single parent who may have to field more interruptions than usual during the workday, but whose skills in organization and multitasking, honed by running a complex household single-handedly, will make her a brilliant project manager.
The seemingly bored young employee who is quietly taking in and processing all the structure, activity, and relationships that make up her first job.
The slow-moving clerical worker who knows that a deliberate investment of time at the outset preserves the far greater time it would take him to find and correct an error.
The engaging conversationalist who always has something smart and witty to say, but who's so competitive that she routinely undermines collaborative efforts to make herself look good.
The one who always stays late, who actually blazes through most of the day's work before noon and spends the rest of his time writing a novel about an office worker who wins the lottery.
The model employee who wants to begin working toward a management position but doesn't know where to start or even if it's a good fit.
All of these employees get their work done and meet expectations. But if their leaders are satisfied to go with surface appearances, they'll miss the real story of these people. Vital skills will go untapped, issues unresolved, promotions made unjustly, assignments made inefficiently.
The cure? It's simple, although it does take some effort.
First, get to know who you're dealing with. Talk to them. Be an involved leader. Learn their aspirations, their weaknesses, their strengths.
Second, create the kind of organization that calls people to be their best while accepting them as they are. Be flexible and fair and open-minded.
Third, help them find ways to succeed on their own terms. What training would help? What work structure? How can you help them steer toward their goals?
When you recognize people, accept them and engage in their success, you build a powerhouse team that's as invested in the organization's success as their own.