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Perfectly imperfect

by Chris DeSantis
Indian Management August 2022

Embracing lopsidedness will—and it must—become more prevalent. The modern business world is complex. Dealing with complexity is a team sport. It requires deep expertise across a range of topics, each of which may be possessed by different individuals on your team.

Millennials were raised to believe they are special. This is where the ‘generation me’ moniker comes from. Millennials were the first generation to routinely receive awards for participation—for something as simple as just showing up. Parents raised their millennial kids to believe that, while they could not excel at everything, they could excel at something. Millennials internalised this message, and they frame their lives, including their work lives, as a search for meaning, self-discovery, and constant, healthy selfimprovement. This is a path, if taken with proper consideration, we might all benefit from.

Being distinctive is a given, we are all distinctive in our own way. What we are so often missing is being in a place where we can leverage and be recognised for our special and unique distinctions.

What follows is a way forward to reshape the workplace that recognises that which is unique in each of us. Smart companies differentiate themselves by being ‘lopsided’. They focus on what is unique about their brand. It becomes a logical next step to cascade the concept throughout the organization. Once the concept is common parlance, the next step is to identify and focus on individuals’ strengths and their potential contribution to teams. If, as a result, teams perform better, start rewarding them and subsequently evaluate each person’s unique contributions to them.

Embracing lopsidedness
In her book Different, Youngme Moon, a professor of business at Harvard Business School, applied the concept of lopsidedness to brands. She noted that when companies implement the same strategies in pursuit of being all things to all people, their products collapse into mediocrity. Brands become generic when they go down this path, as no brand can be everything to everyone. Those brands that stand recognise that they are just really good at certain things.

Smart brands are lopsided in that they focus on certain aspects while intentionally ignoring others. They identify and embrace their one competitive anchor. It is inefficient to pursue unnecessary skills. Well-roundedness is not its own virtue.

The same goes for people. We are not needed or remembered for all that we do, but we are memorable for a few things we do well. Winston Churchill was not remembered for his dance moves, in the same way Britney Spears is not known for her oration.

Cascade lopsidedness
Companies should embrace lopsidedness at every level of operations, including human resources. Lopsidedness is a by-product of specialisation and every bit as beneficial to employees as it is to brands. The trick is to have the right combination of specialised workers in roles that play to their strengths. You want good public speakers in public relations, meticulous, detailoriented people in accounting, and tech savvy people working over in IT. More importantly, you want people excited about public speaking working in PR, people who want to be detail-oriented in accounting, and those who enjoy technology in IT. In other words, the individual should be assigned work, whenever possible, that is in line with their particular ‘super power/s’.

Identify and focus on strengths
We all start with certain talents that make us naturally good at some things, not so great at others. The gap between our strengths and weaknesses becomes further delineated over time as we pursue interests, education, training, and on-the-job learning. We hone the skills that we are good at and enjoy doing. Our skill sets eventually become our own, but the uneven development of skills makes us ever more lopsided as we advance. This is completely natural and merely the inevitable outcome of focusing on and enhancing our natural innate talents rather than committing to the development in areas where we initially struggled.

Keep in mind, raw talent will only take one so far. Desire is what drives the commitment needed to turn talent into skill. Nature can give you a head start, but nurture is how we develop strengths, and eventually, how we achieve greatness, even if we were not so good to start with. Lopsidedness, in this case, is a sign of personal growth and improvement. It is the prioritisation and investment in what you think best defines you.

Reward teams
Companies tend to evaluate individuals rather than teams, typically on some informal bell curve that measures their performance across all of their skills. This has team members competing with each other to prove they are in the top 10 per cent. This undermines people’s self-worth and team commitment. Companies should, instead, reward the best performing teams, not the best team members.

Evaluate relevant contributions
Evaluating employees by a one-size-fits-all generic rubric incentivises employees to be either similar or more well-rounded. This means that everyone, even those at the top, dilute their potential by allocating their time and energy to areas that may not be relevant to the work at hand or they may not be leveraging their full capabilities in the areas where they could add the greatest value. They spend so much time attempting to improve weaknesses that they cannot exploit their full potential.

Rather than evaluating employees across all variables and rewarding them for staying ahead of each other according to measures that may not matter in terms of meeting team goals, companies could evaluate workers on the skills that are actually needed and most valuable in their current roles. Modern, white-collar work often requires deeper expertise in a narrower range. Today’s workers are the most specialised ones to ever exist. They should be judged on their relevant and unique contributions.

The path forward
Embracing lopsidedness will—and it must—become more prevalent. The modern business world is complex. Dealing with complexity is a team sport. It requires deep expertise across a range of topics, each of which may be possessed by different individuals on your team.

It still means we all have to do some things we do not like or are not great at. The workplace is dynamic. We are not cogs or automatons. Sometimes we have to make do and get something done. In those times, it is good to be flexible and adaptive. But the true value that employees bring to a team is in applying their strengths toward meeting shared goals. The more time workers spend on things they both do well and find engaging, the happier and more productive they will be.

Chris DeSantis is an organisational behaviour practitioner, speaker, and podcaster. He is author, Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work.

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