According to Glassdoor, job seekers ask about employee growth opportunities more than any other benefit. They also found that career growth was the top reason people leave their jobs.
Not so coincidentally, an employee’s perception of his or her own personal and professional growth is also one of the top predictors of engagement. When employees stop progressing, they tend to be less engaged, and the search for new opportunities begins. The average tenure at most organizations seems to shrink each year. Unfortunately, your employees often believe their best opportunities reside outside the organization.
Many managers and organizations might look at this problem and throw their hands up. They do not want to add levels of management to their organizations to provide more growth opportunities. Many organizations are trying to flatten rather than deepen their management structures.
Here’s where managers can help. Start talking to employees about growth. Many managers either consciously or subconsciously avoid career progression conversations when they can’t dangle a promotion in front of their employees. They lack a narrative for growth outside traditional promotion opportunities. Below are five growth conversations that every manager should have to engage their employees.
Conversation #1: Career Ambitions
When a new employee arrives, schedule a time to discuss the employee’s career goals. The initial role of a manager in this conversation is to listen for understanding. Managers should be able to understand and clearly articulate the career ambitions of each of their employees. But don’t forget to gauge how important career development is to each employee. Trying to push an employee into growth who does not value growth can be counterproductive.
Managers should return to this conversation regularly to show they’re in tune with their employee’s current ambitions. The very act of listening and understanding will help employees feel that their managers care about their careers. This alone—without further action—can cause people to feel better about their career prospects.
A manager can also serve as a mentor in these conversations. If an employee does not have a clear picture of their future, a manager can help them paint the picture. Managers can draw on their own experiences and the experiences of others to help employees define their futures. With a clear vision of what they can become, it becomes easier for them to deal with less exciting parts of their jobs.
Conversation #2: Strategic Goal Setting
Through the career-ambition conversation, managers can come to understand employees’ long-term goals better. Managers should also help create a short-term plan that ties into long-term ambitions; dig deep in this strategic-goal-setting conversation.
Most managers have an annual goal-setting session with their employees. These sessions are typically associated with an annual review process, and they usually revolve around tactical goals that address an employee’s performance. However, we suggest that you hold strategic-goal-setting conversations separately from tactical-goal conversations. Employees should know and feel that you set special time aside to specifically address their career ambitions.
During the conversation, the competencies, skills, and experiences the employee needs to ultimately achieve their long-term ambitions should emerge. The conversation is future-oriented, but it focuses on what you can do now. Together, the employee and the manager figure out what skills can be learned over the short term that is both applicable to the employee’s future direction, and the organization’s goals.
Sometimes an employee’s skills and competencies do not align with the direction of the company. In this case, the company needs to decide if they are willing to invest in growth for the sake of growth. The best short-term goals build skills and competencies that are both strategic for the employee and the organization.
Conversation #3: Opportunity Alignment
Depending on the person, an employee may view some necessary job tasks as either opportunities or obligations. An employee’s vision for their future will likely influence these perceptions. Of course, we recognize some tasks will attract the whole team, and some tasks will be universally undesirable. Somewhere in between the extremes of that spectrum are tasks that are attractive to some but not others.
The alignment conversation is a regular check-in to understand what tasks have emerged that the employee finds attractive. Managers who know the goals of their employees are better able to present attractive tasks or responsibilities to their employees. Aligning tasks to those who view them as attractive may mean sacrificing efficiency in the short term. Managers will often find it easier to assign tasks to their subject matter experts. The increased engagement your team experiences from the variety and new challenges will counterbalance any loss in efficiency.
Conversation #4: Framing
Even if you have perfectly balanced tasks and attractive growth opportunities for your team, you will likely find a tremendous number of remaining tasks that nobody likes. The term “framing” is used in psychology to describe a bias that occurs when people make different choices depending on how the choice is presented to them. Even when faced with identical facts, people make different choices when those facts are presented with a positive frame versus when those facts are presented with a negative frame.
Employees taking on challenges need positive framing. Without framing, some of the benefits of the challenge are lost. People still grow, they just don’t view the growth positively. I am not advocating the manipulation of employees. As a manager, it is important to see the real benefits of the challenging assignments employees are taking on. Managers should understand and articulate to employees not only how the challenge benefits them in their current position, but also how it will benefit them in their future endeavors.
Conversation #5: Temperature Check
Providing growth opportunities to employees is about creating engagement. Growth opportunities get employees out of the day-to-day boredom of their jobs. If a task is not providing the challenge it is intended to provide, think about adding additional rigor to the task. Push them to achieve better results; remove some of the support structure; add complexity with corresponding tasks or responsibilities; add a leadership component. Do something to the task or responsibility to raise the level of challenge.
On the flip side, some employees dealing with a new task or responsibility may begin to feel overwhelmed. In this situation, the growth opportunity loses its key benefit. Overwhelmed employees find it difficult to engage over the long term. Throwing a person who cannot swim into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver is more likely to drown them than to teach them to swim. Likewise, when an employee’s abilities and tasks are at odds, that employee will burn out rather than engage. In these situations, a manager should apply additional training, guidance, support, and resources to help the employee.
There is a space between boredom and burnout where engagement occurs. The temperature check is a conversation to be held frequently to understand where the employee is between boredom and burnout and to adjust accordingly.
How often you have these conversations depends on the employee. Some employees have extremely dynamic ambitions—they change their minds all the time. With these employees, you may need to have regular conversations about career ambitions. Many employees only need an ambition conversation once a year. The alignment, framing, and temperature-check conversations should all be happening as challenges arise and as employees complete growth opportunities.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Many organizations may see this as a catch-22. If they don’t invest time and resources into growing their employees, their employees leave to find growth opportunities elsewhere. If they do invest time and resources into growing their employees, their employees use their new skills and abilities to find new jobs.
Let’s look at both scenarios. In the first scenario, an employee feels like he or she is no longer growing. The employee becomes bored with the day-to-day tasks he or she fulfills. The employee disengages. The employee leaves the organization for a new opportunity. The employee’s exit is probably viewed as a positive thing because that employee was disengaged anyway.
In the second scenario, the employee feels like he or she is no longer growing. The manager finds out about the employee’s career ambitions. The manager assigns existing tasks in the organization to the employee based on interests and growth plans. The manager offers ongoing support to the employee to ensure they have the resources and training they need to complete the new or novel task. The employee remains engaged.
The employee, equipped with new skills, may look for a new job outside the organization. The employee may also see the merit in being part of an organization where they have the opportunity to gain new experience and build skills. The employee may stay; but even if your attitude is that employees are going to leave the organization, you may as well engage them while they’re here by helping them grow!