Three approaches to employee development that sound like great ideas, but really aren’t

by Melissa Janis


 With employees feeling overwhelmed by ever-increasing task demands, it’s harder than ever to make employee development a priority with its longer term, often “squishy” topics. Fortunately, there are leaders who understand the value of focusing on employee development and look to leverage it to boost productivity, engagement and retention for today as well as to build for the future.

In their efforts to encourage development, leaders tend to choose one of the following approaches, inadvertently undermining the outcomes they seek to achieve:

1. Requiring specific courses

Genuine development relies on internal motivation. While you can require someone else to attend a course, you cannot require them to learn unless they want to do so. Indeed, mandating course attendance can actually create resistance, inhibiting learning and turning development activities into tick box exercises.

Case in point: employees who are required to attend a specific course frequently do not know the course name. What does it say about willingness to learn if the participants don’t bother to remember what the class is called?

2. Requiring a certain number of hours to be spent in class

While this approach includes an element of employee choice, it’s not enough to counteract the resistance-producing effect of requiring development. Further, class hours do not equate to degree of learning. Ironically, the hour count excludes the post-class activities (feedback and practice) that are more strongly correlated with learning effectiveness.

As Peter Drucker said “what gets measured gets done.” Mandating hours encourages behaviors suited to achieve the hour count, for example, sitting in the back of a classroom to earn time credit while on email all day. Additionally, this approach will backfire if employees interpret this mandate as “more is better.” They will accumulate large number of hours in class, but apply very little of what they learned afterward. The result is reduced productivity to service the appearance of learning, without an ROI to the business.

3. Requiring a certain number of courses

A variation of requiring time in class, this approach allows for some degree of choice due to the voluntary nature of course selection. However, the mandate creates resistance here as well, encouraging a tick box mentality that contaminates course selection.

When the number of courses is being measured, the game becomes “how fast can you complete?” Employees soon realize they can use course duration and make their selections based on brevity, and/or take eLearning on topics they have mastered topic in order to skip through to the test and get course credit quickly.


Try this instead: focus on improving impact

To encourage learning activities that will facilitate performance rather than counting, measure impact. Asking your employees to learn something new and then report on the impact to the business will shift the focus from course attendance to business outcomes.

For example, let’s say your employee wants to learn how to generate new ideas in order to support innovation. Rather than measuring his development activity by the classes he attends, measure what he does with the content he learned. In this case it could be “recommend a new approach to resolving a business challenge.”

In order to be able to provide evidence of impact, employees will find that they need to choose courses that are highly relevant and to apply key take-aways to make a difference.

If you have a large span of control, you might even consider setting the expectation for reporting at the manager level rather than the individual one to encourage joint ownership of employee development. Employee-manager collaboration begins with a meaningful conversation that determines the nexus of the employee’s career goals and the manager’s perspective of the needs of both the employee and the business.

Next, available development resources are explored to identify the one(s) that best suit the topic, the employee’s learning style and preferences, budget, and time constraints. The employee and manager will agree on what specifically the employee will set out to learn and how the impact on his performance will be measured. They should also agree on how the manager will support the learning.

By focusing on learning outcomes you can gain the commitment needed to ensure that development efforts are effective for the employee, his manager and the business.

Now that’s an approach you can count on.


Melissa Janis is Senior Director of Learning & Development for McGraw-Hill Education.  The views expressed are her own.  Follow her on Twitter@MelissaJanis 


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