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4 Things Every Manager (and HR) Should Know about Developing Employees

By David Berke

1. You don’t develop people

All development is fundamentally self-development. I can’t learn for you. You can’t learn for me. But most people can’t figure out everything on their own. They need various types of support. That’s what a manager can and should do. Here are some ways to provide support. If the manager does these, he or she also will be helping his or her employees motivate themselves (because you can’t motivate someone either):

  • Demonstrating that he or she (the manager) believes that the development effort is important
  • Ensuring that the development goal is clear
  • Arranging for necessary resources
  • Providing feedback regularly about the process the employee is using to accomplish the goal
  • Helping the employee to manage potential obstacles in the workplace such as schedule

2. Attending a Training Class (or watching something online) is almost never enough

If you want someone to be exposed to information- and that’s all- attending a class or watching something online could be enough.

But if you want someone to remember what they saw, they need to apply it. If you want someone to develop skills related to what they saw, they need to practice and get feedback. It’s a manager’s responsibility to make sure the employee has the opportunity to do the application and to get feedback. The manager doesn’t necessarily have to be present to oversee these things. But the manager is responsible for making sure it happens and that the results are tracked. That’s because the employee development process and the outcome of that process are a manager’s responsibilities.

 3. You can’t make it safe to fail

If you’re a manager, you’ve undoubtedly been advised to make it safe to fail. That way your employee will make safe for your employee to take a chance and learn. If you have to promise immunity from failure to get an employee to learn something new, you probably need a new employee. The truth is there is no such thing as immunity from failure- if an individual can’t figure it out, eventually someone else will have to.

On the other hand, if the employee works at a place where the rule- explicit or tacit- is that making mistakes is same thing as failing, that employee probably needs a new place to work.

Everyone makes mistakes- when they’re learning and after they’ve learned. People are not perfect. But different organizations- and managers within those organizations- have different levels of tolerance for mistakes. Be clear about what those are from the beginning.

It would be better to tell an employee it’s safe to make mistakes as long as the employee learns from those mistakes- and doesn’t make them again. It would be better to have some clear expectations and a plan. The plan could have a progression over time. The manager and employee could agree to check in regularly to status the plan and revise it if needed.

4. A development goal is not a plan

A manager and employee discuss what skill the employee needs or wants to develop; they agree on a goal; and…and… and often that’s where the conversation ends. The employee agrees to do something. The manager may say that they should check in periodically to see how things are going. But there’s a good chance neither will occur unless there is a crisis related in some way to what the employee should have learned.

The fact is stopping with the goal only works if there is an obvious solution. If someone wants to learn something, the obvious solution is a workshop or class. But a class or workshop is almost always an incomplete solution and most managers know that from personal experience. Usually successful development requires a combination of activities that will include one or more development assignments along with the workshop or class; or maybe no workshop at all. And sometimes the manager’s assistance will be needed to set up those assignments and provide resources.

Pretending there is an easy answer when there isn’t, is not helpful. If you have a goal to accomplish you need to do more than hope you’ll figure out what to do and how to do it. You put together a plan. It can be detailed or it can simple. But it should be something that reflects the manager’s and the employee’s best estimate of what it takes to accomplish the goal.


david-berke-200x300David Berke, the author of Supported Self-Development, is a principal at Lorsch, Berke & Associates, LLC. He has over 25 years of experience working as a manager, individual contributor, and consultant in the fields of management and executive development, employee development, leadership development, and organization development.

In addition to Supported Self-Development, David has written a book on succession planning, Succession Planning and Management:A Guide to Organizational Systems and Practices. He co-authored a book on leadership development, Developing Leadership Talent. He also has written a number of articles on succession and leadership development. 

Please join us on Wednesday, October 15th at 2:00 pm EST as Mr. Berke leads a free webinar through HRDQ-U.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  Sign up today!

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