One of the single biggest things that employees want from their work is the opportunity to grow and develop. This shouldn’t be news to any manager – we all hopefully know this by now.
However, what we don’t necessarily know is that we really don’t have to be particularly involved in order for them to get this.
Egomaniacs that we are, managers often think that it’s our job to make sure all our employees’ needs are met, but often that isn’t the best way we can help them. Often, instead of showing people the right path, all we should be doing is making space in front of them so they can move in the direction that’s right for them.
Caring about your staff need not inexorably lead to doing things for them. The truth is that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much effort and thought you put in, you will never be as well placed to understand and manage someone’s career as they are themselves. The best thing you can do for your staff isn’t managing their career, it’s providing them the freedom and opportunity to manage it themselves. Not only will this be better for them, it will also be better for you and your relationships with them.
A long time ago I had a friend who was part of a very wealthy family. And I mean British old-school weird wealthy. They had a vast squadron of servants who handled pretty much everything that went on in the house. One day I was having lunch with him and his family, and his mother was complaining about the food their chef had prepared. There was nothing wrong with it, it was incredible, but it wasn’t prepared exactly as she wanted, so she was annoyed. She called the chef out to tell him what was wrong, but she couldn’t explain it. She knew she didn’t want it the way he’d prepared it, but she couldn’t really explain how she did want it. The more she struggled to explain, the more frustrated she seemed to get with him – as if he should have been able to understand her needs despite her not knowing them herself.
In a nutshell, that’s the problem with taking on responsibility for someone else’s career. We often don’t know what they want, and they often don’t even know themselves. But when they expect us to be driving their growth and development, it becomes our fault when that progress doesn’t materialise.
We can avoid this problem by simply giving them the freedom to make their own choices and removing the expectation that we’re going to manage their career for them. We don’t have to cook their meals, we just have to give them access to the kitchen.
For a long time now, my staff have been given a training budget that they can choose how to use. I simply tell them all that there’s a certain amount of money they can spend on training each year, and I let them decide what to spend that money on. I believe in giving people total freedom in this regard. This means that if you’re a salesperson who wants to spend the training budget I give you on a landscape gardening course that is of no benefit to the company whatsoever, you can go right ahead and do that. I want you to be better off for having worked for me, so that training budget is for you, not for me. If that means that next year you quit to go be a gardener because it’s what you’ve always wanted to do, I honestly can’t think of a better outcome. Obviously that level of freedom is at the extreme end of the approach, and restricting people to learning things that are beneficial to the company might be more suitable sometimes, but giving people control of their own development can really only be a good thing.
When I first reframed things this way with my staff it immediately solved a number of problems with previously disengaged employees. One case really stands out with an employee who had become disillusioned after performing his job well but not progressing due to a lack of clarity on what he actually wanted to do with his career. Almost overnight, he became his old self again. He was coming into work smiling, performing his job well, and seemed happy, engaged and full of energy. I realised that previously he’d been expecting me to solve his career problem for him – like my friend’s mother expecting the chef to know how she wanted her food even though she didn’t know herself – and he had been getting resentful that I hadn’t done that. He thought it meant I didn’t value what he was doing. When I stopped trying to make his lack of direction my problem, and instead told him it was his, he realised that there wasn’t really a simple answer to it, but that it didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the work he did. He stopped blaming me for something that I had no control over, and just got back to enjoying a job he was good at and wanted to do.
Giving people control of their own training and career development is not an abdication of your responsibility as manager. It’s a way you can truly give them an opportunity to grow without ever accidentally standing in their way.
About the author
Matt Casey is a management expert, the co-founder of DoThings.io and author of The Management Delusion: What If We’re Doing it All Wrong out now, priced £11.99
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