Development is a shared responsibility. So, when it comes to the crunch, why is it that so many employers find it so hard to do less ‘telling’ and more ‘agreeing’ when it comes to employee development? And why do employees sit back and allow it to happen? 

There are some mistakes you only make once. Like showing up to your first ever career development discussion meeting with nothing prepared.  Not a sausage.  Track back twenty years, and, you guessed it, that was me … very naïve and a lot younger.  You see, no one had explained it to me.  I thought it was a career development discussion.  It was.  What I had failed to appreciate was that it was my career development discussion.  That it was a two way conversation requiring my input, my preparation and my own thoughts and ideas on how I might shape my future with the support of my employer. In my defence (and in the defence of countless others who have gone before or since me), until then, school reports and parents evenings were the only experiences I’d had that came anything close to this.   And, if memory serves me well after all these years, I don’t recall being asked for any contribution to those, other than to sit nervously and take note as the teachers delivered their feedback.  

Yet, this ‘feed me’ approach to personal development is a malaise that afflicts many a workplace, and in some cases, left unmanaged, it is adopted organisation wide, at all levels.  Needless to say that this very first experience of feedback and discussion in the workplace taught me the best lesson possible to ensure that I never assumed the back seat again where my own development was concerned.  I was dispatched out of the meeting room and told in no uncertain terms that if I wasn’t going to come prepared, then I shouldn’t have come at all.  Harsh?  Yes, but also a very fair cop.  

Development, after all, is a shared responsibility.  As the employee your career and your future will be shaped by it, so why wouldn’t you want to influence and drive it?  To have little or no input is to risk being pushed down a career path that neither suits you nor appeals. And as an employer, a huge part of your responsibility is to support, advise and guide your employees towards mutually beneficial future goals.  Ultimately it is all about alignment of corporate and individual goals to create the perfect symbiosis – happy, engaged and empowered employees delivering on company goals, investing their loyalty and growing with the business.  And as every sensible employer knows, engaged and empowered employees usually translate into business growth and profitability.  

It sounds so obvious and so easy in black and white print.  So, when it comes to the crunch, why is it that so many employers find it so hard to do less ‘telling’ and more ‘agreeing’ when it comes to employee development? And why do employees sit back and allow it to happen? 

Time 

It isn’t really written into any of our job descriptions, or built into any of our weekly schedules, is it?  All the ‘people stuff’ that goes with being a business owner or a line manager is just supposed to magically squeeze into the non existent gaps between getting the actual job done.  Ditto for employees.  Who cuts them any slack in the run up to one on one meetings because they’ve had to take up valuable time to prepare for and attend them?  Unfortunately, that’s life though.  The bottom line is, if your people are as important to you as they should be (employers) / your career matters to you (employees), this is one of the most important and pivotal meetings in your diary.  Give it the time and attention it deserves.  Plan it, set aside the time, ensure privacy and shut off distractions.  It’s hard to do, but there’s no other way.  If both parties are going to take time away from the ‘factory floor’ (metaphorical or otherwise), at least make it count. 

Culture 

Take a look at how custom and practice has influenced your culture.  Then ask yourself, are your accepted norms for managing career-based discussions working for you and for your employees.  Are you both gaining from it, or is it simply a one-way (top down) communication exercise.  Whether it is a performance discussion, a career development meeting, or some form of training exercise, make sure you both own it. It is disappointingly commonplace as a trainer to find oneself in front of a room full of delegates who have literally no clue why they have been ‘sent’ on a development course by their managers, usually following some form of performance or development review. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to identify objectives or outcomes as a result.  As for those who attend fully engaged as to how the training contributes to their development and what both they and their employer intend to gain from it … well, it’s generally a win/win.  If your culture needs shifting in this direction then you will likely need to address it from both ends.  Line managers will need to be coached in how to actively involve their staff in their own performance and development reviews, and employees will need to be clear that this is not only acceptable, but also expected.  

Framework  

Any well-organised meeting needs structure; a purpose and an agenda, ideally shared out among the attendees ahead of time.  Career development meetings are no exception in that they require some sort of framework around which to build a useful discussion.  That said, an ‘agenda’ may feel a little over-structured; it is after all a two way discussion which may take surprising or unexpected turns, and that can be no bad thing.  But don’t blindside or ambush your employee with deep and searching questions and then be surprised or irritated that they can’t answer them ‘on the fly’.  If you don’t have a framework or structure already in place, take a look at our Drivers questionnaire, which is an increasingly popular application within organisations who are encouraging people to take more ownership for their own development. The questionnaire helps individuals gain deeper personal insight and identify the critical actions to share with their manager or HR during one to one development discussions.  

Onus Of Responsibility 

Preparing (well) for any form of one to one catch up with an employee is time consuming (albeit worthwhile).  But it shouldn’t just be down to the line manager to do the legwork (producing work examples, gathering peer feedback, analysing performance against KPI’s etc).  As my early experience taught me, ‘if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, and that goes as much for the employee as the employer. When it comes to discussing future goals and aspirations, the same applies.  Why second-guess what someone wants out of their career, what their aspirations and goals are, and what they will find motivating and fulfilling, when they could simply tell you themselves.  And if an employee is seeking to be developed in a certain way, it is not unreasonable to expect them to have put some proactive thought behind the detail. Have they come with suggestions for external training courses, for example?  Can they pinpoint projects they would like to get involved in?  As an employer, you have a responsibility to either facilitate these requests, find more appropriate / feasible alternatives, or be honest if they are wildly unrealistic.  And in order to do that, you need to come prepared with the facts that will drive those decisions.  What is your available budget?  What resources are at your disposal?  What is the impact on others in the team? And how do the employee’s expectations align with their capability or potential and with wider corporate goals.   

According to Eric Berne (and his Transactional Analysis theory) we all have an element of ‘parent’, ‘adult’ and ‘child’ within us.  Which of these ‘personas’ one individual adopts in transacting with another will heavily influence the response.  Any form of interaction between employer and employee which starts from a ‘top down’ (‘parent’) perspective is likely to result in a ‘child’ like response.  (You tell, I do … unless I don’t like it, in which case I will rebel). Getting the best out of performance or development discussions is all about engaging and involving everyone.  In other words, creating an adult / adult relationship in which there is room for everyone to contribute ideas, agree a way forward and own the outcomes.   

 As for whose career is it anyway?  The answer is simple – the employee’s.  But it’s a journey neither party can make without the other on board.    


For further information on how our Drivers questionnaire can support development discussions in your organisation, download an example report.