Employee Development and the Elastic Brain

I’ve always liked the metaphor used by psychologist JoAnn Deak of the “elastic brain.” Deak describes the brain as being made up of many elastic bands some of which have more give in them than others. The more flexible elastic bands that stretch easily represent the things that come easily to us and that we can improve and grow without much toil. The more rigid elastic bands represent things that are more challenging – those areas where it is difficult to make noticeable improvements.

Everybody has a unique set of elastic bands. Someone might have a large, flexible elastic when it comes to sports but have a small and rigid elastic for math. Somebody else may have a lot of give in their organizational elastic while her problem solving elastic barely seems to budge.

Deak encourages people to work on stretching all of their elastics while acknowledging that some of them will stretch more easily than others. A lot of our work culture, however, seems focused on those more flexible elastics.

It’s commonly accepted wisdom that smart managers give employees tasks that they know those employees will excel at. This makes sense because workers using their more flexible elastics will perform those tasks more quickly and efficiently and will likely take more enjoyment in their work.

At the same time however, focusing solely on those things that come easily does not force the employee to challenge those more rigid elastics. She is not developing any new skills or growing a new part of her brain. In the long term her smaller elastics will become even less flexible as they atrophy. As she becomes more specialized, she will also become less able to adapt.

So what does your organizations actively encourage?

  • Employees who excel at specialized areas and have large elastic bands that could stretch from here to the sun?
  • Or employees who have worked on those more rigid elastics as well as the easy ones and have a wider range of skills?

It may be that your organization may voice one philosophy about employee development, but when you critically examine the opportunities and the incentives, it actually encourages something quite different.

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1 Comment

  1. How many supervisors know and care about their staff at a level that supports addressing varying levels of “elasticity”? Just asking.

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