Look around and you’ll see that many companies are wasting their human capital by not matching work assignments to each employee’s level of capability. Whether they are stifled by too many layers in the chain of command or not being allowed to solve problems themselves, employees feel disconnected from the organization. This author has concrete suggestions for creating the right work environment that challenges people and matches their capabilities to the tasks that will allow them meet their own goals and those of the company.

If the Canadian steel company, Dofasco, hadn’t claimed the term, “…our strength is our people,” other companies would not have a problem making the same boast. Yet, a steady stream of headlines in the business section of newspapers suggests that a company’s strength does not lie not with its people. Just look at the immediate stock gains of companies that announce wholesale lay-offs. This suggests that the strength of these companies lies elsewhere, regardless of the spin companies place on their restructuring. The truth is that, unlike Dofasco, too many companies have failed to master the art of unleashing their people power and enjoying sustained strong corporate performance.

This article describes the mechanisms a company must have to optimize its underused resource – its people. It is based on research conducted in the United Kingdom and that has been “in play” for 30 odd years. It will interest corporate leaders who are shaping the teams that lead their companies and who are identifying the leaders of tomorrow. The article will also interest managers who want to get a bigger bang out of their payroll and those who want to understand more about the implicit element necessary for on-the-job success.

“Great! I’ve got a problem.” What really engages employeesThe mechanics for unleashing a company’s people power involves something much more than a slogan. It calls for an understanding, perhaps sensed or learned, of the conditions that lead people to giddily say, as one Dofasco manager put it: “When they cut me, I bleed Dofasco.” One of those conditions recognizes a quirk that’s built in to almost all employees: The intense satisfaction that comes from engaging in and solving problems.

In the mid ’80s, Elliot Jaques and Gillian Stamp, researchers at London-based Brunel University’s Institute of Organization and Social Studies (BIOSS), found that there were direct links between job satisfaction and job performance, and a person’s ability to cope with the variety and complexity of problems encountered at work. They labeled that ability “working capacity” and defined it as the highest level of work of a given type that a person could carry out successfully.

Working-capacity is a natural occurrence of a person’s intellectual growth over the span of their life. Problems that were daunting during teen years are easily mastered when we move into our twenties. Problems that confounded us during our twenties become easier to handle when we get older. Jaques labelled this phenomenon “cognitive-complexity: The ability of a person to construe and handle a set of changing factors encountered in the performance of a task.” In other words, our ability to manipulate knowledge, experience, and information in problem solving grows with age. However, the old adage that “wisdom comes with age” turns out to be not necessarily true. Brainpower, it seems, is not equally distributed throughout a population, an observation experienced managers are unlikely to disagree with.

Jaques and Stamp found that individuals differ in their intellectual capability when it comes to solving complex problems. In a thirty-year study, they found that people’s cognitive capability matures in regular and predictable ways. The curved bands in the chart show the broad bands within which individuals mature in their ability to handle complex problems. Like growth spurts, some individuals’ ability develops at an earlier age than others. Still others mature at a steady pace throughout life, while others tend to flatten out over time. Jaques’ studies showed the bands to be accurate predictors of a person’s future potential. By identifying a person’s maturity band and relating it to their age, one can identify the likely trajectory of growth over time. His findings confirm that some of us are smarter than the rest of us.

The findings also provide an explanation as to why some individuals succeed in a job while others are found wanting. They also provide strong clues for the intangibles of job satisfaction and success. The findings show that a person’s job satisfaction, exclusive of other factors, is the fit between problem-solving capability and the type of problems encountered on the job, the element that makes for success on the job: The better the fit, the better the sense of competency. The poorer the fit, the more likely a person will be unhappy with their situation.

Problems of fit crop up when mismatches occur, when the difficulty of a job’s problems exceeds or falls below a person’s capability. For example, a vice president of projects was the bane of his boss. Articulate, well liked, and carrying the bearing of success, the outward appearances hid an anxious, worried person whose onthe-job performance fell marginally below the boss’ expectations but not enough to warrant disciplinary action. The VP was good at some things but inexplicably frustrated by others; he ignored customer-sensitive problems while blaming others for slipping schedules. With a little probing, it turned out that the VP’s problem-solving ability fell below the demands of the job. Regardless of how hard he would try, he just could not keep up. The fit between the person’s problem solving-ability and the complexity of problems typically found at the vice president level was the underlying cause of marginal underperformance, a performance that was hurting the company.

The engaged employee is the problem-solving employee

At work, regardless of the positions held, employees are bombarded with problems. They routinely exercise choices over the discretionary part of their work: What priorities to set, how to tackle a task; how to hurdle barriers that get in the way of a goal; what decisions to make under changing circumstances over different times. Problems provide employees with the mental candy in a job. For many of us, it’s the fun part of a job; it’s what turns people on. Problems link a person’s knowledge, experience, and judgment to a result, a solution, a product, and a service. It’s what makes a job satisfying. And it’s what makes, ultimately, a profit for a company.

This mental candy, the solving of problems, lies at the core of all decisions. It’s an intangible bit of wisdom greatly prized for its quality. Grossly poor judgments stick out like an unwanted guest at a dinner party and frequently earn the offender a trip out the door. Sadly, marginal poor judgments are much more common. They sap energy from a business because they go undetected for a long time. Eventually, however, it becomes evident to a boss that results are not meeting his or her expectations. Like fruit going bad, marginal poor judgments develop a scent of their own that the nose at last identifies as under performance. Poor judgments steal profits from a business while robbing the individual of prestige and self-esteem, if not a job. However, companies that genuinely value people create conditions for people to succeed more often than fail. “We don’t want them to fail,” says a Dofasco manager, “so we provide them with training, coaching, and mentoring.”

The right work climate for making the right decisions

It takes forethought and planning to ensure that sound judgments are made on the job. Setting the stage for making consistently good decisions requires a work climate in which the unpredictable and the unknowable work in favour of making consistently good judgments naturally, in the service a company’s goals.

Tilting the work climate in favour of getting consistently better work decisions calls for a bit of deliberate planning and a little effort. Three steps will enhance an individual’s ability to make better decisions on the job:

  1. Keep the work levels needed to achieve goals to a minimum.
  2. Put managers at one level above subordinates and see that there is only one manager at each level in the chain-ofcommand.
  3. Match a person’s skills and capabilities with the job’s challenges.

1. Make sure that the chain-of-command structure has no more than the minimum work levels required to achieve the company’s goals. Most companies require no more than five or eight levels. Dofasco, for example, probably requires no more than seven levels. Five levels would fit the average company.

An easy way to sort out work levels starts at the top, say level five, with the president, and the bottom of the organization, level one. The other levels can then be filled in, for example, managers at level two, directors at level three, and vice presidents at level four. Managers oversee a section, directors oversee a department, vice presidents oversee a function, and the president, level five, oversees the company.

2. Place managers at one level of work above their subordinates, and make sure that there is only one manager at each level in a chain-of-command. This ensures that managers will be immersed in work of a higher complexity than their people. It gives managers a broad, enterprise perspective and a context for setting and delivering performance-shattering goals for their people.

Too tall or too flat a chain of command throws a curve at getting the most from a company’s employees. Too small or too big a difference between a manager and staff hobbles people – they can’t release their creativity and take initiative and they can’t be challenged effectively.

With little or no difference in a job’s complexity between boss and staff, a jam-up occurs. When a boss and staff occupying the same level of complexity, regardless of title, the boss can’t add value to her people’s work. Her staff will view the manager as a colleague, not a real manager, and her authority, the right to command, is undercut. It’s hard to push higher-performance goals when you are not accepted as a real manager. Worst still, jam-ups produce redundant layers in a company, add costs and weave inefficiencies into a business. An engineering director had difficulties managing a talented engineer. The engineer viewed himself as brighter than his boss, didn’t see him adding much to his job, and was reluctant to take orders from someone he viewed as an equal rather than a boss. Probing revealed minimal difference in complexity between their two jobs, and, in fact, the engineer’s capabilities exceeded that of his boss. That made it difficult for the boss to exercise authority over the engineer or for the engineer to see how his boss could add value to his job.

If the spread of a job’s complexity between a manager and a subordinate is too big, a gap occurs. Gaps are the flipside of jam-ups and trigger as many problems, contaminating communications and perceptions. A subordinate finds it difficult to understand the manager’s perspective – they are too far apart to do otherwise. The manager’s impatience swells with the subordinate’s inability to “keep up.” Gaps pull managers downward rather than dragging subordinates upward. Gaps guarantee that there are no winners and that the losers will always be the ones who cannot keep up.

In a business where each level of management creates the right context for the one below, each level adds value and each job acquires dignity for the contribution it makes to the success of the business. It allows each level to concentrate on its own accountabilities, pouring its energies into goals set by managers and, with little effort, unleashing the company’s people power.

3. Match a person’s capabilities and skills to the challenges posed by a job. And that’s not hard to do, as a person’s job performance behaviours will tell you when there’s a good or bad match.

As noted above, most people grow to handle complex problems. When problems are in balance with what we feel capable of doing, we experience a sense of well-being; we feel up to the task, feel good about going to work in the morning and feel good about ourselves. Employees in the “zone” (see insert), look involved, committed to their jobs, act chipper and communicate a sense of well-being. In other words, there’s a good match between the person and the challenge of the work.

However, humans are never static and when the balance between a job’s challenge and a person’s capabilities drifts out of kilter, problems occur. Noting when a person moves out of balance affords managers the chance to act to keep people focused on the organization’s goals. When a person’s capabilities outgrow a job, they should be delegated tasks of greater complexity, of high difficulty. That keeps them challenged. When a job and the capabilities of a person slip out of kilter, managers need to rein in responsibilities and lower the complexity of the tasks assigned the employee. Not doing so ensures that costs and penalties will pile up for the company and the employee.

Promotions, good intentions, and favouritism are often the architects that mismatch an employee with the complexities of a job. Enticed into situations beyond their capabilities, a person will flounder. Initial floundering is tolerated as part of the learning curve; we expect the person will grow into the job and prove our judgment correct. A struggling plant manager disclosed his doubts about mastering his job, confessing that his greatest fear was disappointing his prominent father-in-law. He knew his marginal performance was not up to the requirements of the job and a sympathetic boss colluded with the mismatch by keeping him on the job.

When gross mismatches occur, a person will experience difficulty in ordering their actions, choosing between courses of action and judging moments to act – an unhappy place for anyone to be in. The unlucky employee soon feels overwhelmed and impotent. No need for a finely tuned antenna to identify these mismatches here, the employee’s behaviour will get your attention: Critical tasks go undone; long hours become the norm yet the individuals are always behind; decisions are a struggle and when made, are cautious and risk averse; worry and anxiety sap spirits. When that occurs, life’s not much fun and the employee dreams of a less demanding job. If left to fester, the employee will leave the organization one way or another. If forced to leave the company, the reason may be stated as poor job performance. The underlying culprit, however, lies in the mismatch between capabilities and work challenge and a boss who failed to note the discrepancy.

The flipside of this situation exists when a person’s capabilities exceed their work challenges. And the cost to the company and employee is just as disheartening. Underchallenged employees suffer from boredom and a sense of marking time. Here too their behaviours bellow “mismatch’: They knock on doors hunting different work assignments, push for promotions, or start a search for a more amenable job elsewhere. Left wallowing, such employees channel their capabilities, their energies, into off-the-job distractions, seek some place else to apply their skills, or retire on the job by lowering their expectations and ambitions-the deadwood of corporations. An underused, dispirited manager at an auto parts company caught fire when his job was recast with a higher level of accountability, turning an HR headache into a corporate asset with afterburners.

Ultimately, a company fritters away its human capital by not matching work assignments to each employee’s level of capability. That’s easily done by simplifying the chain-of-command reporting structure into five or eight levels, having one manager at each level for each chain-of-command, and matching the capabilities of each employee with the problems that naturally occur at each level. Ultimately, that’s the boss’ never- ending job – deploying the company’s resources, creating the right environment, challenging people and matching capabilities to the task that deliver the company’s goals. The benefits blossom in an energized work place: Boosted confidence, better and timely decisions, along with soaring commitment to the company. It makes allocutions of vision, values, and employees as “our greatest asset” ring true and much more than just a slogan. The other beneficiary, the bottom line, won’t struggle to extend its thanks to a management team for unleashing a company’s people power.

About the Author

Stephen Ferris is a partner with CODA, a Georgetown, Ontario-based consulting firm. He can be reached at

About the Author

Stephen Ferris is a partner with CODA, a Georgetown, Ontario-based consulting firm. He can be reached at

About the Author

Stephen Ferris is a partner with CODA, a Georgetown, Ontario-based consulting firm. He can be reached at