Executive Education

Unleashing Performance through Professional “Majors” (They’re Not Just for College Anymore)

You’ve seen it in your colleagues. You’ve seen it in your direct reports. You may have even seen it in yourself once or twice: performing lower than expected. Doing the bare minimum. Seeking too much direction. Simultaneously feeling overwhelmed and bored, and—possibly the most painful—lacking meaning and fulfillment.

Take the case of “Todd,” a systems engineer I managed several years and companies ago. He was hired to monitor the company’s system performance and troubleshoot issues. With a bachelor’s degree in computer science from a top-flight university and three years of relevant experience, he seemed like a great fit. Things started fairly well the first few weeks, but soon his performance lagged below expectations and his requests for training days and time off quickly exceeded the days he would actually be in office.

In this situation, the typical response is to talk with him and find out what is going on, and that’s what I did. He explained that he was eager to learn and exceed performance expectations, but that he needed more guidance. So we set some expectations. We created a plan for more tracking and communication. The next few days went okay. But after an initial small uptick, he resumed his former pattern. Worse, he wasn’t the only one in my group underperforming. I needed to figure out another approach, and quickly.

After many years of reading, thinking, and trying different tactics, it finally occurred to me: What if, instead of organizing my group by tasks, setting expectations, and managing everyone so they fall in line, I organize my group around my people—and, specifically, their strengths and interests?

With my current team, I first created some guardrails around the scope of possibilities: what knowledge areas were in, and what areas were out? What competencies does the group need? Which ones aren’t essential? For example, sales skills and knowledge are not particularly needed, but networking, security, and performance optimization are. Next, I invited each of my direct reports to choose their specialty—a major of sorts. In turn, I committed my support to helping them master their chosen expertise through formal training, assignments, mentoring, and other activities. Over the next days and weeks, energy and morale rapidly lifted, and performance soon followed. Today, we are a highly respected, high-performing team in the organization with several requests for internal transfer to my group.

While this approach came somewhat intuitively to me, it turns out there is some theory to back it up. First is that when each member of your group becomes a resident passionate expert about a critical knowledge area or competence, your group members truly need to rely on and collaborate with each other. This interdependence is one of the ingredients of real teams (coveted for their superior performance above mere work groups), which Katzenbach and Smith talked about in The Wisdom of Teams (2015). As important as interdependence is, however, another ingredient Katzenbach and Smith didn’t mention was critical: the power to choose.

For that, I turn to the power of self-determination, meaning the control we have over our own lives and—in this case—our jobs. According to self-determination theory, people naturally want to grow, perform well, and feel coherent or aligned within themselves. Psychology professors Ryan and Deci (2000) added based on their research that we are best able to grow, function, and experience wellbeing when we can satisfy our basic psychological needs for competence and mastery, relatedness with others, and autonomy or being able to choose our course. Researchers believe these needs are innate, instinctive, and universal across time, culture, and demographics (Chirkov, Ryan, Kim, & Kaplan, 2003). More important, employees can meet these needs on the job—and deliver the commitment, motivation, and performance their organizations require—only when they have environments that support it.

So what can you do as a leader to create such an environment? I suggest four practices:

  1. Outline the knowledge areas and competencies required in your group: Before embarking on an initiative to enhance self-determination, understand your departmental landscape, including the boundaries around what is and is not relevant to the work that needs to be done. Take time to outline the knowledge areas and skills relevant to the work of your department or, more broadly, organization.
  2. Watch for signs of low motivation and understand the scope of the issue: Motivation issues are the bane of any organization and can be a performance and morale killer. Be mindful for the signs of low motivation in yourself and others, such as having little focus or direction, overly relying on the manager or others for guidance, exhibiting poor performance or low productivity, and showing overall low mood or energy. When you find yourself or your employees exhibiting these signs over 2 weeks or more without an obvious (and temporary) cause, you may have a person lacking passion and purpose. If only one or a few individuals in your group exhibit these symptoms, you may be able to work with them independently to help them find their way. If your entire group or department exhibits these symptoms, this could be a sign that you need to overhaul your whole environment to support self-determination.
  3. Identify areas of core interest: Although people naturally want to learn, grow, and perform well, the subject or focus on their interests often vary. Ask questions to help them figure out what knowledge and skills they most desire to develop, such as: When you think about the last year or two, what project or problem most captivated your time and energy? When have you felt most alive and engaged? After identifying the core experiences that most engaged them, catalog the knowledge, skills, and competencies they relied on to bring those experiences to successful conclusion. Then compare their list to what is needed in your department or organization to identify their major area(s) of focus.
  4. Support yourself and your people in developing desired expertise: Having identified their core areas of interest, it is time to encourage your people to pursue development through a combination of means, including formal and informal training, mentoring, job assignments, reading, and more. Watching your staff take flight in this way is exciting and rewarding. Over time, you also benefit from having a diverse team of experts who are passionate about their respective specialties. This, in turn, dramatically boosts your collective productivity and performance.

In most cases—as in the case with my current team—following these steps will help you and your group unleash your individual and collective brilliance. However, this article would not be complete without a word of caution. In this process, one, a few, or even a number of your staff may decide they don’t really fit well with the job, group, or organization. While this can be hard news to hear, it presents a needed chance for adjustment. By supporting them as they find the role that best fits them—even if it is outside your group—you ultimately help them and your organization become higher performing and successful in the long run.


Chirkov, V.; Ryan, R. M.; Kim, Y.; Kaplan, U. (2003). “Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination perspective on internalisation of cultural orientations, gender and well being”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84 (1): 97–110. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.97

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2015). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68

Written by Dr. Nick Stoianov, Ph.D. Have you read?

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Dr. Nick Stoianov, PhD.
Nick Stoianov, PhD, is Head of the Global Technical Advisory Group at Adobe and author of Management Anti-Patterns: How Leaders Turn Problems Into Crises … and What to Do Instead (in press). As a researcher, writer, and executive coach, he focuses on cultivating management excellence for optimal engagement and organizational performance. Nick Stoianov is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.