Developing Staff Effectively Means Overcoming Fears

While staff development can mean a variety of things – offering employees opportunities to upgrade skills, providing them with leadership training, or helping them focus on career advancement, it can and should mean much more.

To make work more meaningful, increase employee engagement and accountability, people development must include ongoing individual meetings with leaders. Managers can help employees set personal goals, (such as staying fit) and work related goals, (like speaking out more during brainstorming sessions) that mesh with the company vision, strategy and daily activities. Afterwards, supervisors and their staff continue to meet individually to discuss staff progress as it relates to both the employee and the company’s goals.

Yet some leaders neglect this vital function. They complain they’re too busy. Or, they argue, they don’t care about what people want for them selves or from their jobs – they just want the job done.

Whatever the reason, if you’re a leader – whether a CEO to a line supervisor – neglecting regular individual staff development can be a mistake. Conversely, focusing on this process can be vital to your success.

The purpose of developing employees is threefold:
First, engaging staff in regular learning opportunities as they arise on the job means leaders can head off costly mistakes or misunderstandings before they happen or become serious. On a positive note, leaders can give guidance on a project and keep tabs on its progress.

Second, tapping into an employee’s personal goals (such as exercising more or maintaining a better work/family balance) and professional aims (practising being straightforward in communication with others or obtaining higher education) engages staff in discussions that lend meaning to their work lives and make them more effective.

Thirdly, ensuring that staff goals align with company goals on an ongoing basis is important. For example, employees may discover that the job is not what they thought it was or the organization has subtly changed its needs. Meeting regularly to discuss what an employee expects and examining how that fits with the organization’s needs is imperative.

However, developing staff takes time, ability and organizational will, much of which can be in short supply in time starved, cash strapped or purely project management focussed organizations.

Yet, the rewards are many. Leaders find regular individual meetings with staff can streamline projects, save time and money and boost morale.

So why do many leaders falter?

Here are some assumptions leaders make, and how they can give themselves a reality check:

Fear of falling behind
Analyse whether it is really true that scheduling 30 minute to one hour individual meetings with subordinates every month will put you desperately behind. To be efficient, prepare for the initial meeting by asking subordinates to think of what they want for themselves and what they would like to work on professionally. Provide examples of the kinds of goals that would be appropriate – personal goals may include quitting smoking or attending lunch and learn sessions. Work-related goals include things like speaking up more or listening more during team meetings, appreciating others’ contributions in public, and attending courses.

Think about the goals you have in mind for a subordinate ahead of time and share your thoughts at the meeting. After the initial goal setting meeting, meet regularly to help the staff person progress by referring to their goals and enabling them to apply them on-the-job.

Fear of development meetings turning messy.
The adage “stuff happens”, is true when leaders work with subordinates whether they engage in development meetings or not. So, why not create opportunities to handle miscommunications, hard feelings or misunderstandings on a regular basis? Why wait until things blow, making resolution is difficult? Inevitably, leaders must deal with situations that make them uncomfortable, require intervention, or demand difficult conversations. When managers or supervisors don a “people-developer” identity, conversations about mistakes, confusion or a lack of accountability are a bit easier.

Fear of not knowing how.
It is true that managers may grow into their positions especially if they were promoted for technical expertise rather than their people skills. However, adopting the attitude that everyone is and must continue to learn and grow means including oneself. If staff know you are trying to improve your leadership and people skills, they’ll appreciate your efforts. They will forgive your mistakes, give you hints on what to do and enjoy working on their own goals more, knowing you are in it together.

Taking a course in an area that you might need skills is always an option. Consider learning about business empathy if people seem to find you hard to approach, delve into giving and receiving feedback if you have difficulty challenging others.

Fear of honest, frank face-to-face conversations.
Developing people means being honest and it may mean disclosing one’s own struggles if necessary. Avoiding setting regular meetings that expose you to this highly personal interaction may be comforting in the short term, but in the long run it is better to establish forthright communication as a standard. People appreciate knowing where they stand and prefer to collaborate when working with others. Learning to work in a transparent manner comes with practice. Being plain spoken and constructively honest invites dialogue and recognizes that no one is perfect.

Fear of wasting time.
Development meetings can become a waste of time if leaders fail to develop staff goals that match organizational goals, fail to meet regularly or track employee progress by referring to the goals during the meeting. If the conversations are superficial and the leader is unable to be open or talk about how to make the meetings more useful to the staff person, development meetings may be pointless. Be sure to make meetings relevant by being goal and progress focussed, be open, empathic and learning oriented. Share concerns and credit, show appreciation and be sure to book the next meeting before ending the session.

Overcoming some of the fears around people development is the first step in transforming one’s leadership practices— book time with subordinates, ask them what they want, tell them what you want and keep meeting to stay on track. Sounds easy. With practice, it is.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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