Professional development, or the idea of improving oneself at work beyond meeting specific performance goals, is all too often an exercise in box-checking during the year-end review. A manager may make a few statements around what they think the employee should work on over the next year, smile, and place the evaluation in a folder—never to be looked at again. The employee, on the other hand, sits anxiously through the conversation, likely hearing feedback for the first time, and nodding politely while waiting to learn what their salary increase will be.
The comingling of performance reviews (backward-looking) with development planning (forward-looking) was likely rooted in the best of intentions. On the surface, it’s more convenient for managers, saving them time by killing two birds with one stone. It shifts the narrative from the negative—how the employee didn’t measure up—to the positive, action-oriented—what the employee is going to do about it. The manager feels good that they are “looking out” for their employee’s development and well-being. So what can be wrong with something that is efficient, action-oriented, and makes you feel good about yourself? Well, nothing…for the manager…but everything for the employee.
While on the surface it seems perfectly logical to combine these two conversations, experience tells us that because of their inherent differences, both messages will ultimately be watered down and fall flat. This is because the majority of the meeting time is spent reviewing past performance and behavior. Development planning then becomes the afterthought that gets crammed into the last five minutes. This is not to say they aren’t connected. In fact, performance level is the impetus for identifying development areas needed to excel in a role. Performance reviews and development planning are like spaghetti tacos. Sure, you can combine them, but is it really a good idea?
Insert Bob Dylan Song: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”
The evolving employee landscape adds to the argument that more emphasis must be placed on individual development. Millennials are now the largest segment of the workforce. In fact, according to labor statistics collected by the Pew Research center in April 2018, millennials now account for nearly 40% of all workers. This is critically important because, as Pew also states, 87% of millennials list professional development and career growth opportunities as very important considerations of whether they are engaged in their organization.
So the $64,000 question is: How do we, as leaders, place an emphasis on individual development in a way that isn’t overly cumbersome and painful, while also making the employee feel as though someone is interested in their professional well-being?
Here are a few suggestions to consider as you strategize developmental conversations with your employees:
- Prioritize development planning by not cramming it in to the annual performance discussions. Make development planning a regular topic of discussion. If you have regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings, dedicate every other meeting (or at least one meeting per quarter) to discussing developmental goals. This allows both you and your employee to rise above the day-to-day grind and focus on what it will take to move their career forward. Research indicates that having written goals helps ensure accountability and commitment—so encourage your employees to take notes. While the context and motivation of the identified developmental opportunities are aligned to performance, conducting separate discussions sends the message that you consider both topics to be equally important.
- Give them opportunities to get smarter. The best and most efficient way to engage someone in their self-development is to give them opportunities to increase their intellectual curiosity. This could mean an invitation to attend or observe meetings to which they usually don’t have access. It could be as simple as bringing in subject matter experts to share industry trends or providing opportunities to attend seminars or conferences. During conversations, ask questions that allow your employees the space to generate ideas.
- Help them expand their sphere. As a boss, you have a tremendous influence over your employees’ career trajectory. However, oftentimes promotions, special assignments, etc., are made with input from many others. As developmental goals are created, consider who else in the organization can be an advocate for your employees’ development and help them make connections. Finding a mentor is one of the most common ways of doing this, so encourage your employees to network and build relationships with multiple people who also offer support and guidance.
- Encourage them to cultivate their personal brand. When an employee doesn’t do this well, a manager will usually say something like, “you need more visibility.” The unsaid is that the manager likely thinks the employee is performing well but they are having a tough time defending their value to peers and bosses. When an employee shares their knowledge publicly, their value can be recognized. Hence, they’ll build the respect of their peers and opportunities will begin to appear from places that they never imagined. This doesn’t happen overnight and patience is important. The employee’s reputation will begin to build upon itself with every blog post they write and each presentation they give.
- Provide honest and frank feedback. If you had spinach in your teeth, wouldn’t you want to know? Employees are the same way. There are times an employee may be unaware of certain behaviors that are stifling their career trajectory. These are called derailers and they have been known to halt an otherwise promising career. To the employee, it seems as though they can do nothing that will make a difference, which leads to frustration and disengagement. Derailers have a compounding effect on a person’s reputation which creates a vicious cycle. Everyone but the employee is aware of the behavior—so the offending behavior continues, cementing everyone’s opinion about the employee. The cycle can only be broken when the employee gains self-awareness and addresses the derailing behaviors.
- Expect a learning curve. For any of this to work, however, people must be willing to get out of their comfort zones. Personal and professional growth requires us to stretch ourselves and take some risks. If the fear of retribution or condemnation is too great, people will remain in the space where they feel safest. However, if they know that perfection isn’t required and there is room to learn from mistakes, you invite them to challenge themselves. Alasdair White refers to this as the “optimal performance zone”—the place between the comfort zone and the panic zone, where learning and performance are at its peak. If a mistake or misstep is made, ask them what they would do differently next time, or what they’ve learned from the experience. This doesn’t preclude you from giving feedback, but it sends the message that learning from our mistakes is important.
The list above isn’t exhaustive. There are many things you can do to foster a culture of self-development with your employees and organization. The key is to prioritize individual development planning and treat it as an ongoing partnership with your employees—not a one-time activity. This not only ensures that you are committed to maintaining open and ongoing dialogue with your employees, but also conveys to your employees that you are genuinely interested in their personal growth and success, which helps foster trust and loyalty.
By making development planning a priority, you will not only help make your workforce more effective and knowledgeable, but also increase employee satisfaction and retention.
Director of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness
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