Is Your Employee Development Broken? Here's How to Fix It.

Every few months, business leaders cross their fingers and wish for good news about the latest employee-engagement survey. This January, they were still disappointed.
Is Your Employee Development Broken? Here's How to Fix It.
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Every few months, business leaders cross their fingers and wish for good news when they see the latest-to-be-released report on employee engagement. Earlier this month, the most recent Gallup poll of 1,500 employees dashed any of those leaders' hopes once again. According to the report, as of January 24, only 36 percent of employees surveyed described themselves as engaged.

Related: 5 Companies Getting Employee Engagement Right 

Reading that stat, executives may feel a slight twinge in their stomachs. And, for the umpteenth time, they’ll feel the need to revisit their big-picture engagement strategy. But maybe it’s time for a different approach.

The reason is that employee engagement is a multi-faceted issue. By trying to fix every cause of disengagement at once, business leaders are spreading themselves thin and diluting their strategies' effect on the employee experience. Instead, they should be starting with just one piece of the puzzle.

Take employee development, for example. Without hope or excitement about their future with a company, employees will have a difficult time connecting with their jobs.

Let’s take a look at the three ways traditional employee-development programs are hurting employee engagement:

Lack of direction

In September 2015, Achievers released The Greatness Gap: The State of Employee Disengagement. It found that a large majority -- more than 60 percent of the 397 North American employees surveyed -- said they didn’t know their company’s mission, vision or values. Just as those core tenets serve to guide an organization, they should also be used to help steer employee development.

Unfortunately, many companies forget to align the direction of their employee-development programs with their organizations' overall direction and goals. Without that connection, employees find it difficult to see how the skills they've learned will impact their career in the present and the future. Their training may seem like something they’ve been forced to do, rather than something that is preparing them for their next step with the organization.

The solution: At the beginning of any training session, take the time to explain to employees the overall learning objectives as well as ways in which the skills they're learning will specifically help them contribute to the success of the organization.

If possible, customize the learning materials so that the wording and examples used reflect your company’s missions and goals.

For instance, during customer service training, use examples drawn from real experiences from the company’s past as ways customer issues were not properly addressed. Then ask employees how they might approach the situation differently, using the skills they’ve learned. Ask how their particular strategy would better reflect the company’s values.

Related: Employee Engagement and the Pursuit of Happiness

Isolated development

Many organizations use a two-pronged approach to support employee development. First, they look at ways employees can push themselves to be better -- encouraging employees to use their individual career goals as their motivation to learn. Second, these companies strive to inspire employees in their growth so the organization can have the skilled workforce it needs to succeed.

But there’s a third source of motivation that’s ignored: peer influence.

The relationships that co-workers have is often underestimated. However, a 2015 Virgin Pulse survey of more than 1,000 American and Canadian workers found that 66 percent of respondents said their relationships with colleagues improved their focus at work.

If employees aren’t encouraged to work together and share their personal development goals with their peers, it’s less likely that their training will be productive. Not to mention that for many employees, learning alone is markedly less engaging.

The solution: Build accountability into employee development. Have workers pair up so they can hold each other responsible to their individual goals. It’s not necessary for employees to be learning the same skills, but it is important for them to create a connection where they can discuss their progress and support one other when things get difficult.

Most importantly, encourage employees to praise each other for their successes.

A faltering priority

There are few worthwhile skills that can be mastered in a one-day course. True employee development is something that takes time. Employees need time to revisit material and apply their skills in a practical situation. They need continuous feedback on their progress.

However, in many cases, once the initial training is over, leaders and managers stop focusing on that aspect of an individual’s development. That can make employees question if anything they learned is of real value to the company -- or, worse, believe that they haven’t improved at all.

In fact, a January 2017 Officevibe survey of employees from more than 1,000 different companies worldwide found that 53 percent of participating employees said they felt they hadn’t significantly developed their skills in the last year.

The solution: Provide employees with constant feedback about their development. Schedule regular check-ins so their progress can be acknowledged. This gives employees a chance to see how their success is valued.

Be sure to discuss ways they’ve been able to use their training in the current position. This reinforces the connection between their efforts to improve and their role in the company. Also, open up a conversation about what the next steps will be. Ask them how they feel they can build upon their skill set and ways they can apply those skills in the future. They should be shown that their development is always a priority.

Related: Is Better Employee Engagement the Solution to Hiring Woes?

Employee development is a small part of overall engagement. However, it’s one that can’t be ignored. When approached the right way, training programs become a powerful tool to inspire employees and connect them with their work.

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