Is It Better to Make Employees Fit Roles or Roles Fit Employees?

Should an employee fit a role or should pre-defined role fit an employee?

Should employees be made to fit into a role or should roles be made to fit an employee?

Employee Role Playing

Over a grill this past weekend, a debate arose among friends about whether it is better to help employees change to fit the role you envision for them, or change their role to fit their strengths.  The VP of Sales in a friend’s company was more oriented to implementing a sales strategy designed by someone else than oriented to creating the sales strategy himself.  This was frustrating my friend, the owner of the business,  because the VP of Sales was not strong at the same things as my friend.  He envisioned someone in his own mold who could create diverse sales strategies and was comfortable modifying them on the fly.  On the other hand, my friend is not that good at consistent execution once that is what is needed.

The debate has strong arguments on either side.  Some people argue that an organization should develop an optimal structure and then find/modify the people to fit the structure.  The argument is that you cannot change your company structure around every time the employee mix changes.  And certainly, you should not disrupt the organization to fit someone’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

On the other side, it may be difficult to find people to slot perfectly into pre-defined roles.

In my experience with smaller companies or teams within larger companies, I lean toward trying to put people in jobs that match to their strengths.  First of all, the people are happier because they are more successful.  This creates an overall better vibe to the organization.  Second, I once received the advice that it was more effective to build on someone’s strengths than attempt to mitigate their weaknesses.  It is much less work and easier to build on someone’s strengths than the energy it takes to improve something that is a weakness (particularly if they are not inspired to improve).  Third, the more creative or ‘knowledge worker’ the work, the more that matching people to roles consistent with their strengths is important, in my opinion.

The debate reminded me of an employee at the National Holistic Institute, the massage school where I am part owner.  This person had a role where she did not interact with students face-to-face that much, but she always encouraged students to come talk with her in her office, or she found herself in the hallways interacting with students and doing her best to support them.  This created tension as she was not doing her assigned role, but was interacting with students.  This disconnect got worse and worse until one day when we asked her what she felt were her strengths and she said, “Helping students and being present to support them.”  With that statement fresh in our minds, we set about thinking about where we needed someone with that skill.  In short order, we realized we had a role that was a perfect fit for her strengths and she has gone on to thrive in that role and have a major positive impact on the school.

What it took was focusing attention on finding the right role for her strengths.