What Gives You the Edge?

This article was originally published here

By Peter Weddle — We humans are not all that different from animal species. We think we are, Descartes assured us we were, but recent research suggests that we’re not. It’s been discovered, for example, that chimpanzees use sticks to hunt for food, bees communicate with one another through complex dances, and birds act as “social tutors” for their young. Smart as we are, our furry, feathered and flitting friends are apparently pretty smart too.

So, what sets us apart? As one scientist puts it, what gives us our “humaniqueness?” What put us at the top of the evolutionary ladder?

The differentiator, it turns out, is our ability to use our intelligence in different ways. We can use sticks to hoe a garden, to light a fire, to erect a house or even to fashion a pencil and write a sonnet. Chimpanzees can’t. We can communicate with our body language but also with our vocal cords. Bees can’t. And, we can teach our young the mores of society, but we can also teach them how to think for themselves. Birds can’t.

Animal knowledge, in short, is fixed. Our intelligence, on the other hand, is flexible. We can do with it as we will. We can tailor what we know to a diverse range of situations and scenarios. We can adapt and apply our knowledge to achieve alternative outcomes or even to acquire additional knowledge. We are multi-dimensional creatures—or at least, we have the potential to be—and it’s that diversity in the way we use our know-how that defines our “humaniqueness.”

But, there’s a problem. We have this inherent capacity for flexibility, and all too often, we ignore it in our careers. Consciously or unconsciously, we limit the application of our knowledge to a single milieu. We become expert in sales or finance or IT or customer service, and we squeeze our use of that expertise into an artificial box called a job description. Our talent in those fields almost always extends far beyond what we are asked to do, yet we let ourselves be held back by that truncated definition of our capability. And when that happens, we give up our “humaniqueness,” at least in the workplace.

Why do we let that happen? Why don’t we make better, broader, more unconstrained use of our talent on-the job?

  • In some organizations, of course, it’s against the rules to work outside the lines. When you do more than what’s asked for, you “buck the system,” and that breach of cultural norms can be hazardous to your career—at least, your career in that organization.
  • In other cases, we do what we’re told because we’re afraid of what will happen if we do more. Taking the initiative to contribute more than what’s expected can open us to the criticism of our peers or to abusive behavior by our bosses.
  • And in still other cases, we stick to what we’re obligated to do because to do otherwise requires that we invest more effort than we’re used to or comfortable with. We have to work harder, smarter or both, and we don’t see why we should.

    While all of these situations clearly exist in the workplace, they are not the principal reason we abandon our “humaniqueness” on-the-job. In my view, the number one reason most of us don’t work beyond our job description is because we don’t realize that we can (or should). So, here’s my modest proposal for 2009. Be the multi-dimensional person you have the capacity to be. Throw off the shackles of your employer’s job description and contribute your special talent as broadly as you can.

    Adopting that course of action will empower you to realize your best self on-the-job. It will take you beyond the organization’s definition of your talent to one you create on your own. And, that level of performance provides you with two very important benefits:

  • First, job descriptions are the definition of what employers expect in normal times. In times such as these, they need more, even if they don’t say so. The fulsome use of your talent, therefore, makes your contribution more valuable to the enterprise, and that appreciation of your role, in turn, reinforces your employment security. Said another way, working beyond the scope of your job description—doing well what you’re supposed to do and then doing even more—is the single best way to protect yourself in an unstable employment environment.
  • Second, job descriptions describe jobs—boxes on an organization chart—not individual human beings. Working beyond the box, therefore, enables you to become the most broadly accomplished person you can be in the workplace. It captures your “humaniqueness.” More than just setting you apart from animals, however, and more than just differentiating you from some box, that term also signifies that you are a special performer. You position yourself as a unique human, one who refuses to be held down by any constraints on your work because you want to experience the epitome of your talent.

    As you look ahead, remember your “humaniqueness.” It’s what gives you an edge, on the evolutionary ladder and on the organization chart.

    Thanks for reading,

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