Self-empowered development is a hot topic in talent management, and rightly so. Many organizations are tapping into employees’ natural passion and initiative to drive high-impact development. But here’s the paradox: People can’t actually do it on their own. Organizations must establish an environment and provide the tools needed to support individual efforts, and managers must offer the right mix of partnering and guidance.

Five practices are key to success with self-empowered development:

  1. Distinguish between development and performance management
  2. Encourage people to establish their own development goals
  3. Clarify and articulate what’s most important
  4. Establish distinct roles (employee and manager)
  5. Provide easy access to tools and support

I’ll explore the first two in this blog post, and the remaining three in a subsequent post.

Distinguish Between Development and Performance Management

By design, performance management is about looking back at what you did last year. Did you have goals? Did you achieve those goals? Did they have the outcomes intended?

In true performance management, the focus is on outcomes: Did you achieve the goals and was that achievement consistent with what you and your manager discussed in terms of business outcomes? From that review process, employees are evaluated on their effectiveness and how they did throughout the year. That, in turn, is how the organization can properly assess compensation and consider promotion decisions.

Performance management is fundamentally essential to the success of any business, but it is a “rear-view mirror” process. The focus is on results and not on examining individual capabilities.

Conversely, true professional development focuses on your capabilities as a contributor. Those include your knowledge (what you have attained through experience, education, and training); your skills (what you are able to do over and over again to the desired level); and your competencies (the combination of knowledge and skills you apply in real world situations to achieve intended results).

But people don’t learn results; they learn what it takes to achieve results. Professional development is often about identifying the outcomes that you did not achieve and examining which challenges prevented you from getting the results that you wanted. It is also an examination of the future: What challenges will you face? What capabilities do you need to meet future challenges?

But here’s the problem: Organizations tend to combine the two into a single instrument — the annual performance review. Performance management is a critical evaluation of what you did in the past, while professional development is forward-looking to how you will achieve your intended results in the future.

So what does this all have to do with self-empowered development?

Development goals that result from a performance management process tend to be both retrospective and corrective. They may very well not identify the two or three things that will have the greatest impact for you in the future. They are also often prescriptive, resulting directly from the performance feedback — what have you done less effectively and, thus, need to work on?

Separating performance management and development planning clears the way for individuals to look forward versus back, and focus on goals for the future versus the mistakes of the past. It also allows people to drive their own goals instead of having them dictated by the results of an evaluation process.

Encourage People to Establish Their Own Development Goals

The job of the organization is to set the outcomes needed for business success and leverage capabilities to get there. Organizational support for professional development is critical. However, an employee’s development goals should be based on their own ideas. Good managers can (and should) certainly help with that process by supporting and helping to refine those ideas. But imposing goals on employees — especially as part of an inherently critical process — simply does not garner the sustained interest and commitment needed to achieve them.

The most successful organizations challenge their people to set individual development goals and let the employees initiate the process.

Establishing and owning your own development goals leads to a far greater chance of success than being told what your development goals should be. Granted, the organization gets to decide what’s important to achieve in a given job role. But giving employees the ability to align those expectations to what they know to be their strengths and weaknesses is what will make them successful.

When I think about self-empowered development, I often think of the value of the Socratic method. Socrates taught us about critical thinking that comes from within — to be engaged as a student, to think on our own, to not accept an unexplained option, and to be active versus passive in our thinking. While Socrates wasn’t thinking about how employees get the most out of their jobs, his lessons apply in so many contexts and this is certainly one of them.

The role of effective management is to encourage employees to come up with their own ideas on how to be successful given the challenges of the business, and then ask good questions to challenge their assumptions and rationales. That is a critical part of the process.

But the first step needs to be with the individual employees because, as we have seen time and time again, they will be more successful with goals they have chosen for themselves than they will be with those imposed on them by others — even if those goals are exactly the same. That level of ownership supports the confidence and engagement needed for successful and sustained follow-up.

Please look for my next blog post on this topic, which will explore three additional focus areas to make self-empowered development pay off. They include: Clarify and articulate what’s most important; establish distinct roles (employee and manager); and provide easy access to tools and support.