“Oh, I didn’t know you could do that!”

It’s a sentiment that’s heard – or at least felt – a lot in the business world. Manager and supervisors hire someone for a specific role and then are surprised to find that person is capable of other things. Recently Fast Company shared some tips on how managers can cultivate and take advantage of the “hidden” talents of employees.

The concept of “hidden” talents is at best misplaced and at worst extremely problematic.

Starting Off On the Wrong Foot

Problems in utilizing an employee’s full range of skills and abilities creep in almost immediately, beginning with the hiring process. Job descriptions are very specific, laying out the *exact* skills needed and the *exact* roles that person will be expected to fill and perform. If you don’t check all the boxes, you won’t get the job. If you check all those boxes in addition to a few others that aren’t listed, you won’t get the job.

Once an individual gets the job, they are kept in the box they arrived in. Assignments are made along the lines laid out by the skills that person is understood to have. Not only is the problem being addressed specified but so are both the goal and the steps that should be taken to get from Point A to Point B.

Lack of Creative Freedom

The reason for that overly-prescriptive direction is a mix of A) bias based on previous experience from managers and supervisors, and B) restrictions rooted in software or other resource availability. Basically workers are being hemmed in by what software is officially approved and a sense that what other people did is the best predictor of what should be done in the future.

This despite the reality that original solutions can offer unexpected benefits. It might be cheaper, more efficient or simply more elegant and easy to replicate. It might provide a more substantial solution to the issue than the dictated process. Any deviation from the mapped out road is frequently met with disapproval and even reprimand, a behavior to be corrected in order to make sure the employee sticks to the company line in the future.

Hidden Talents = Bad Management

Whatever the rationale espoused by higher ups in an organization, putting guardrails on employees in any regard is a waste of resources.

Imagine mining for a precious resource, but the current tools only extract 60 percent of what’s available. Everyone hired has to use the same tools and comes to understand the same limitation, but no one is allowed to bring it up or suggest alternatives, even if their previous experience gives them important insights on how to get more – or all – of the available mineral. Any other tools that might do a more complete job aren’t available because that’s not who the current management team has selected as an approved vendor.

While there’s a decent case to be made that people don’t need to bring their “whole selves” to the workplace, it’s irresponsible for companies to not give people the freedom to not only offer suggestions based on their unique set of experiences, personality and insights but allow them to act on those without fear of being given a poor performance review.

Someone with kids may see a solution that someone without them won’t, even if the problem isn’t about kids or anything related to them. Sci-fi fans might have suggestions based on their experience at conventions or online fan groups. The examples go on forever.

It’s irresponsible to not allow people to bring the sum total of their experiences and knowledge to work. You never know where a great idea will come from, but if a manager has created an environment where individualism is left at the front door and people are reminded over and over again to not stand out but stick to the script they are therefore limiting the number of possible solutions that will be presented.

Managers who are surprised when they discover someone who works for them has a “hidden” talent are guilty of not utilizing that person’s full potential from the outset. Either their job responsibilities are too narrow, their mandate too restrictive or their work not nearly challenging enough to engage them more fully.

It shouldn’t come out of left field that someone is a great writer, has insights into a particular field/community or has something more to bring to the table beyond the bullet points on their initial job description. If it does, you need to reevaluate how you’re managing the people under you and consider how they can be given more freedom to be themselves.