Growing employees

I, as many others, have been struggling to find ways to allow subordinates to grow without compromising the quality of our work. As we hand over more responsibilities to those in our charge, we risk receiving deliverables that do not meet our standards. In addition, it can take considerable time before we see the benefits of the employee’s development. These issues can tempt some managers to adopt a micromanaging style. In this post I am bringing up a few things to keep in mind when developing your employees.

When providing learning opportunities, it is important to meet the employee on their level. The less experienced the employee, the more handholding they require. Make sure to plan for this and set aside appropriate amounts of time. Anticipate that your production will most likely decrease since you need to take time to demonstrate and explain a task and potentially fix errors in their work. If you expect to maintain the same production as before, you will need to accept working more hours yourself.

As employees become more experienced, they require less direction but still need management and leadership. At this point, it is important to clearly communicate goals and desired outcomes of the project and then allow them to work on their own. There are of course areas in-between complete handholding and hands off management styles. As a manager, you need to adjust the level depending on the employee’s maturity level. I believe there is tendencies for younger managers to provide too much handholding while more experienced managers tend to offer too little support.
One of the reasons younger managers have a tendency to provide too much assistance may be because they don’t understand the benefits of providing more freedom. Another reason can be that they don’t trust their employees (which unfortunately can result in a ripple effect leading to general trust issues in the group). A third reason could be insecurity in their role and the desire to make everything perfect. Conversely, more experienced managers may be out of touch with the experience of being new and needing more of the manager’s time. They also often have so much to do that they simply don’t have time to train the new employees. Any time invested in training the employee will provide good returns in the future.

I measure my success in developing an employee by keeping track of their progress towards proficiency. For a less experienced employee, they may learn to do parts of a project with minimal over sight. For more experienced employees, they may start to ask questions that I have forgotten to take in to consideration. The ultimate indication of development, which should be everyone’s ideal, is when employees start to correct something you have done. This means that they have either surpassed your abilities and knowledge base or are close to it, which translates to tremendous contributions to the company. Some managers might be afraid of being out-performed, but just because an employee surpasses you in one skill, it doesn’t mean they have surpassed you in all skills. And if they have succeeded to surpass you in all skills you should give yourself a pat on the back and be proud of making a great contribution to the business.

I played basketball growing up and my coach always emphasized the need to push the limits during practice. Pushing myself made me lose the ball from time to time, but it eventually made me a better player. Similarly, this philosophy can be applied to the workplace. If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, you will not reach your full potential. As managers, it is our responsibility to make sure we provide a safe training environment where it is acceptable to make and learn from mistakes while providing a safety net where we can step in and fix any potential issues.

My way of providing a safe training environment varies depending on an employee’s skill level. For inexperienced employees, I am aware that production will slow down, but not by how much since this depends on the individual as well as the project. Because of this variation, I set up a cutoff time when I can step in and take over the majority of the project to make sure we meet the deadline. The advantage of this method is that it allows the employee to learn at an appropriate pace while ensuring that I can deliver on time. The drawback is that once I reach the cutoff time, it usually means I will have to work fairly long days to get the deliverable done in time (you can set an earlier cutoff time, but I often want to provide as much opportunities as possible for them to learn so I set it late). Training in this stage is an investment for the future.

For more experienced employees, I just provide project goals and directions. I either let them create a time plan or create one with them so we both know what is expected and can track the progress. As the employee finishes part of the project, he/she checks of the items in the time plan. This allows me to get out of their way while still monitoring their progress. I also avoid asking them how it is going, and instead make it clear they can always come to me with questions. I have an open door policy and make sure I take my time addressing questions so the employee doesn’t’ feel like they are interrupting me (even if they might be). Similarly, they feel comfortable asking for help if they believe they made a mistake. Because I am able to monitor the project and foster open communication, I create a safe and transparent training environment where I will notice if I need to step in at any time.

Unless the project goes off track, I only need to review the final deliverables, which frees up a lot of my time. This allows me to increase my production significantly since I can run other projects in parallel. One slight drawback is that, because I allow employees to work independently, I might get interrupted throughout the day, which disrupts my production a bit. One work around is to come in before anyone else or continue working after everyone leaves. More significantly, if I adopt simultaneous project and need to unexpectedly step in to assist an employee, I will have a lot to juggle. Still, even with these drawbacks, my group’s increased production makes up for it.

A parallel to training can be seen in the onboarding process often employed in gaming. When the player begins the game, they have simple tasks and are shown how to complete them. Later on, as they become more comfortable with the rules, mechanics, and objectives of the game, they receive less guidance and are allowed to explore and learn by themselves. In the same way, managers need to provide more direction and guidance to less experienced employees whereas more experienced employees need to gain a sense of mastery and autonomy. By providing the right type of leadership, you will foster higher productivity and employee satisfaction.

© David Juhlin and, 2015

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