The US economy is picking up steam and, as a result, more employees are getting a bit restless and considering “jumping ship”. We’re seeing a lot of advice on how to improve employee retention through better engagement. Everyone wants to know the “secret sauce” for increasing engagement. Here’s at least one ingredient…

In a career development workshop I facilitate, I ask the participants to describe (in just a few words) an experience they would consider as a career highlight. In almost every group, there is one common word used to describe these experiences (and this is gathered from thousands of people across the globe over a number of years).

Are you ready? The word is “challenge”. In other words, their most meaningful career experiences involved the feeling of somehow being challenged. As I have probed deeper, the description underneath the term “challenge” usually has to do with taking a bit of a personal risk, learning on the fly, or maybe doing something the team or organization hadn’t done before. Bottom line, the experience provided a growth opportunity.

I think one of the main reasons employees start the clandestine job search or become disengaged is that they’ve lost the feeling of being challenged.

Image courtesy of watiporn at

Image courtesy of watiporn at

Sometimes as leaders we may say “Sure, I give my people challenges”…but what are we really providing? The chart below lists a few ideas for figuring out whether the opportunities you’re providing will be considered as an engaging career highlight for your team members, or just another “to-do”.

What a Good Challenging Opportunity Looks Like What a Poor Challenging Opportunity Looks Like
  • Develops (or utilizes) skills and talents in line with the person’s career goals and interests
  • Clear project end goals and ways to measure progress and success
  • The opportunity  matters to the organization
  • Requires the person to think/act in new or creative ways
  • Contains an element of risk
  • The assignment is high priority and gets the proper focus or time allocation
  • Provides some level of exposure and visibility with recognition of results
  • Support or resource network (“lifeline”) is available but does not get in the way or dictate approach
  • A task that might interest/excite the boss but is not connected to the individual’s development or career goals
  • Undefined outcomes and milestones
  • Lack of perceived value to the organization
  • Little opportunity for learning or applying untapped skills
  • Delegation of routine or repetitive work
  • An overwhelming volume of workload or unrealistic deadlines
  • An undesirable task masked over by lipstick
  • Little/no support or resources identified or available

I don’t think these challenging opportunities have to be once-in-a-lifetime grandiose experiences and always meet every criterion listed in the left-hand column above. However, what would be wrong with asking your team about their past career highlights (listening for the elements of “challenge”) and helping them create a vision of what another one of those experiences would look like? You just might open the gates to a higher level of engagement and enthusiasm than you thought possible.