What I Should Have Said…

So how much of the responsibility for employee development lies with the employee?

I don’t recall the specific verbiage that was used, but that was the gist of the question as I remember it. It came in a Q & A session following a talk Andy Janning and I gave about employee development, during which I advocated for employee development to be thought of differently than it often is.

Some version of that question was probably running through the minds of others in the audience after I was fairly direct about some managers’ general apathy toward developing their employees. I had suggested that organizations stop acting like the training department alone owns employee development. On a related note I opined that organizations need to stop holding Training more accountable for employee development than those employees’ managers. I said that we, in organizations, need to stop making it OK if managers aren’t developing their employees, and stop thinking that a manager sending an employee to a training session counts as them developing them that employee. And then, to top it off, I argued that organizations need to stop promoting people into management if they don’t develop people; just being a technical expert isn’t good enough anymore.

I was essentially suggesting that employee development needs to evolve into something more than an effort to create human pegs to stick into organizational holes. It has to become more about creating an environment that it is about creating a program. Employee development has to be a community effort, an organizational way of life that’s owned by everyone.

It was as the dust settled from that talk that the question mentioned above was posed. How much of the responsibility for employee development lies with the employee? I’m inferring—and this is admittedly an assumption—that this thought was perhaps in response to me placing so much emphasis on managers’ responsibility to lead and develop people well. The way I took the question was basically this: You’re hitting managers pretty hard about doing their part to develop employees. But what about the employees? Don’t they bear some burden here too? Again, in fairness, the questioner did not take any sort of unkind tone or adversarial stance. It was a good and fair question. I just think I may have bungled the answer.

I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my response (those bright lights get to you every once in a while, you know?), but I said something along the lines of “both the manager and employee own 100% of the responsibility.” My point of course was that both parties have to be entirely committed to the developmental process.

In retrospect though, and as pointed out by a buddy of mine, maybe I should have responded to that question differently. Maybe I should have reframed both the question and my answer.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone as politically-correct as I did. Maybe I should have just said something more like “Why don’t we act like all of the responsibility is on us as leaders? Why spend time trying to figure out just how much of this thing is on us and how much is on that employee?”

As my friend said, of course there’s some sort of unspoken assumption that some of the responsibility falls on employees, but think about it this way: If you’re the manager of a business unit with a capable and engaged leader above you, would that leader allow you to blame your staff for their lack of development? After all, who’s responsible for the staff you’re managing? Technically speaking, you are, right? You’re who that leader holds accountable for your team’s performance.

So what if we changed our mindset? Why wouldn’t we act like all of the responsibility lies with us as leaders? If people really look at themselves as leaders, wouldn’t they be challenging themselves to continue to develop their team well, regardless of what percentage of their employees’ development is assigned to those employees?

Perhaps a case could be made that as long as managers are allowed to place any of the blame on their teams, they’ll assume they’re not the problem. Let me rephrase that. As long as you and I are allowed to place any of the blame on our teams, we tend to assume we’re not the problem. I had never thought of it exactly like that, but how many times have you heard some version of that? Probably lots.

Honestly, some managers aren’t the problem, and that’s fine; but why shouldn’t we feel the weight of that responsibility whether we think it lies totally with us or not? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? We’re usually quick (often too quick) to take credit for the good stuff our teams do, so why not take ownership of the not-so-good as well?

Why don’t we, as leaders, start asking ourselves where our responsibility is in all this? Not the employees’—ours. It’s our responsibility to lead and develop our employees. We signed up for the gig when we accepted a leadership position. Now we need to own it.

4 thoughts on “What I Should Have Said…

  • I disagree with the much of this articles premise. The employer and the employee both own 100% of the components they have control over. Interlaced in your premise is that the “leader” understands how the employee thinks and responds to feedback. And that the message should be tailored to the incumbent’s personality. It also presumes that the boss knows the incumbent so well that their analysis of what is needed is accurate and recognized by the incumbent.

    I believe that what the leader owes to subordinates (hierarchically speaking) is a constantly updated set of measurable expectations and outcomes as well as objective ongoing feedback about how well the expectations are being met.

    What the incumbent owes the organization, their boss, and ultimately their careers is to internalize what their contribution is to the lack of success and to internalize why they didn’t hit specific outcomes. To the extend that the needed changes are all within their control relative to how they approach their work, the expectation would be that they make the needed changes. To the extend that they need additional resources, i.e. job shadowing, training classes, new software/hardware, mentoring…etc., they need to negotiate what THEY need. It becomes the leaders role to either provide the resources, suggest different options, or state a business case for why the request doesn’t make sense from a cost/benefit standpoint.

    The leader also owes a specific action plan to explicitly lay out what the incumbent is going to commit to having received the help they requested. Antecedents only impact 20% of performance improvements. Consequences, especially those developed by the incumbent (positive and negative) have an 80% impact on performance.

    I do agree that none of this theory has anything to do with the “training and development DEPARTMENT”, and absolutely should be owned by the employee supported by the coach/supervisor.

    This is a brief overview of a long developing theory. I would be interested in peer responses as I’m tempted to document my thoughts in either a blog post or article if peers think it has merit. Thanks,

  • I think you may have misinterpreted portions of my post; it really almost felt like you responded to a different post. That or I explained myself poorly, which of course is entirely possible. Either way, I don’t see where I implied that a leader can or will have a complete understanding of how every employee will think and/or respond to feedback. I also don’t see where I implied that a leader’s message shouldn’t be “tailored” to the specific employee with whom he or she is speaking; I actually didn’t mention how the leader should communicate (tailored or otherwise) with the employee at all. Additionally, I don’t see where I implied anything about how well a manager knows or doesn’t know the employee. In fact, the focus of this particular post wasn’t really the employee at all–it was on the mindset of managers. And these comments are only addressing your first five sentences…

    I don’t disagree with many of the points you raise in your reply; they just don’t seem to actually apply to the gist of this particular post. Based on the actual content of my post, I don’t know how you inferred that I was implying much of what you said in your reply. For example, of course I think folks should have measurable expectations. And of course I believe in ongoing feedback. And yes, I believe that employees have responsibility in their own development (as I said in the post), and that managers have responsibility too (the whole point of the post).

    My point–or premise, if you will–simply stated, was that managers shouldn’t worry so much about what percentage of employee development they do or do not own. Rather, they should act and think as if the vast majority of it hinges on what they do to help that employee develop, whatever that might look like in a given situation.

  • “I argued that organizations need to stop promoting people into management if they don’t develop people”

    There is a difference in 1) developing people and 2) having people under them get promotions into other positions and thinking they were responsibile for that. More often I have seen individuals excel and grow in spite of their manager rather than because of it–yet the manager seems to boast about how ‘he’s developed others’. When that is not true at all.

  • The biggest problem is that this is not easily addressed in a 30 sec sound bite. A successful manager creates a culture in which people want to expand their expertise and capabilities. This is one of the best ways a manager can assess employees. A successful employee takes ownership of the job which includes enhancing knowledge and skills needed to best do their job. Within this model both manager and employee have a critical part to play in moving an organization forward. If a manager creates an environment that is stifling or unimaginative no amount of employee initiative will make a whit of difference. If the employee doesn’t take initiative all the training in the world won’t do any good. The chicken or the egg…

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