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Paddy Mann


R&D Director

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Putting employees in control of their personal development


Organisations invest enormous amounts of time, effort and money in the personal development of employees, yet results are patchy at best. Is it time to hand control back to the employees themselves?

The process of personal development, with its objectives, support structures, training tools, feedback sessions and reviews can be painful. Even mature businesses with time-honoured procedures can fail to consistently get real value out of it.

Over time, what starts as a heart-in-the-right-place measure for supporting and motivating staff becomes, at best, a diversion and, at worst, a chance for the boss to vent some pent-up aggression. It goes without saying that neither of these scenarios is much good to a business.

For all of the investment that businesses put into personal development, my experience tells me there is not a lot of impact. I speak to dozens of human resource managers and directors every month and while the majority have some form of feedback process supporting personal development, typically only about 10% of these are satisfied with the results from their annual, biannual and quarterly reviews.

The fundamental problem is not one of motivation; no organisation wants its employees to languish uninspired and unguided, they want them to turn up every day full of vigour and ready for any challenge that lies ahead.

More probably, failure lies in the process – or lack of it – and an overreliance on individual line managers, HR staff, or coaches to provide the support and direction for employees to follow. Instead, there are a few simple steps you can take to create an environment in which employees are encouraged to lead their own development for the benefit of both their career and your organisation.


The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that personal development needs a context or framework in order to deliver value. This starts with an overview of organisational objectives and a job description, both of which provide direction for the developmental process.

In brief, each member of staff needs to understand:

  • The goals (short and long term) of the business
  • The goals (short and long term) of the teams they operate in
  • The parameters of their role and what success looks like
  • Their career path; where they could go and how they get there

Without this clarity, employees will struggle to align their learning with the needs of the business – leading to wasted resource and frustration across all parties.

Self-management skills

In order to develop, employees need to be capable of creating and actioning their own development plans – I agree with author and career coach Brian Tracy when he says: “a goal not written down is merely a wish”.

This skill should not be taken for granted, particularly when applied to their personal development which may not be monitored or measured in the same way as other activities.

You can support this through training in setting SMART goals and applying this to personal development. Company support networks and potentially an investment in software capable of efficiently managing this activity can also help.


To lead their own personal development, employees need to feel supported by their company. This starts with moral support and encouragement, but should also be seen in real investment from your organisation in providing the time and resources the employee needs to grow.

This support could include:

  • Mentors
  • Internal and external training
  • Books and online courses or subscriptions
  • Qualifications
  • Budget to attend events including conferences and expos
  • Allocated time that employees can use for these activities.

If the support is available, make sure employees are clear about what’s on offer and that they have the backing of the business. Be explicit about what money is available and how much time employees can spend on training and development.

360 degree feedback

The challenge for an employee with clear context, self-management skills, and the moral and financial support of their organisation, is where to prioritise their development. Their natural inclination may be to build on their existing area of expertise, yet this is rarely where the biggest opportunity lies for the organisation and the employee’s career.

This is where 360 degree feedback can help. By collating the views of those around the employee, the employee should be provided with clear direction on the top two to three priorities to focus on.

There are plenty of tools available to support this, ranging from social-sharing of feedback (SalesForce’s and Small Improvements are great examples) to tools that support more formal feedback questionnaires.

The more formal approach can require a little more effort to set up but ensures feedback is provided across all areas that are important to the employee being assessed. To keep employees in control, the key is to ensure that they can easily identify those two to three areas where they can make the biggest impact.

People work with more enthusiasm when they have control of their careers and can trace a clear path up the ladder. With a few simple and inexpensive tweaks, your organisation could see dramatic results by empowering and enthusing staff members, giving them the confidence of knowing they are in the driving seat.  

4 Responses

  1. Re: Putting employees in control of their personal development

    Thanks for contributing adepttrainer. 

    I think you are probably right that I don’t go far enough, and I really like your point about fostering attitudes to thrive in chaos and cope with less predictable needs!

    You also highlight a really important difference between individuals – those that are ‘thoughtful’ and want a more flexible approach to development, versus those that want more tightly controlled objectives. It seems that these groups are becoming increasingly polarised due to the explosion in the amount of content now available online.

    Traditional approaches to supporting development like corporate libraries, buddy schemes and computer based training are quickly becoming insufficient for those ‘thoughtful’ individuals, who now seek out blogs, online videos, audiobooks, e-books and can connect with mentors and experts via social media. 

    Thanks for sharing your research insights and thoughts!

  2. Re: Self-directed learning key for the future

    Thank you very much for your comment Fiona. 

    I certainly agree with the points you raise – there is clearly quite a difficult balance to reach when it comes to providing cost-effective development solutions (training, core workshops etc.) against individual learning needs. 

    At Spidergap, we've found that some of our customers address this by using group reports (based on 360 results) to identify common areas that individuals need to focus improvement, and then offer more specific resources based on those needs. 

    For example, the HR team identify that across their Sales department, 360 scores show that "Written communication skills" is the biggest area for improvement. As a result, they send an email to all staff in Sales to suggest some books, workshops and training that is available on this. 

    The nice thing about this approach is that the individuals are much more likely to 'pull' the resources from HR (having just identified similar areas for improvement in their own 360s), rather than feel like training is 'pushed' onto them. 

    The point you make on making individuals more accountable is an excellent, and I'd welcome suggestions on ways in which this can be achieved. 


  3. Putting employees in control of their personal development

    I too agree with Paddy, but perhaps he doesn't go far enough… It is presumptuous of HR departments and other generators of a competency-driven approach to employee development to think that they know better than the people themselves what their learning needs are.

    In my recent doctoral research with providers of outdoor management development, the more thoughtful providers expressed frustration at being constrained by customers with  tight training objectives rather than more open developmental ones. The less thoughtful welcomed tight learning constraints because it made life easier, more predictable, for them. |The problem with this is that the world is becoming less, not more, predictable and it would be better to foster attitudes that thrive in chaos than people who have measurable skills that may, like my ability to operate a comptometer (ask your gran!), become pointless as the world changes.

    Alan Mossman, writing as long ago as 1983, decried the drive towards closed objectives in development events, and advocated the Lancaster Management School idea of self-development.


    30 years later, we might take heed…



  4. Self-directed learning key for the future

    I agree that individuals should become more self-directed in identifying and managing their own learning needs.

    From my experience learning needs are highly individual, but whilst learning solutions are identified and organised centrally, they will be too generic to truly meet the full range of workforce needs.

    That's not to say that some core workshops providing a consistent message in certain areas wouldn't be of value but I think it needs to be supplemented with additional learning options which allow learners to personalise their learning to their own needs.

    I also believe that by holding individuals more accountable for their own learning, organisations will get a better ROI on their investment and the individuals themselves will become more engaged and therefore more productive.


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Paddy Mann

R&D Director

Read more from Paddy Mann