One of the most important factors in employee engagement is whether employees feel as if they have opportunities for growth and development. Those who grow are far more likely to engage than those who stagnate in their roles. Comparing and contrasting significant surveys of workers during two very different periods — though just seven years apart — provides insight into this mindset.
The low point: 2010.
In 2010, employee perception of internal growth opportunities across 70 countries was at its lowest in the 15-plus years that our company, DecisionWise, had tracked engagement. Overall levels of employee engagement also had dropped correspondingly.
These surveys covered several thousand organizations and more than 24 million responses. We asked employees to rate their agreement with the following statement: “This company provides attractive opportunities for growth and development.” Only 57 percent of employee responses to this question were favorable. Nearly half of employees felt they were stagnating.
Consider the environment at that time: Nations around the globe were experiencing their highest levels of unemployment in decades, training budgets had been cut across the board, and fear of a dismal job market led many employees to hunker down in place rather than search beyond their current organizations. Those who stuck around chose to play it safe even within those confines instead of looking internally for challenges and calculated risks.
Growth opportunities simply might have been less available. Certainly, promotions were less frequent than in the years leading to 2010. Managers explained it this way: “Our employees are disengaged because we don’t have promotions and titles to hand out like we used to.” It was an easy washing-of-the-hands excuse, even if the argument did carry a degree of merit.
Many managers assumed that employees needed promotions to feel as if they were growing in their careers. And with fewer promotions to disperse, managers said they had little control over the “growth” component of engagement. The math worked like this: Fewer promotion opportunities equals slower growth and lack of growth equals lower engagement. Or so they said.
A tight labor market: 2017.
But that was then. Today is different, right? Not so fast.
In 2017, the labor market is tighter than ever. Companies actively are reducing bureaucratic layers of management and working to increase efficiencies. We live in the “Age of the Employee,” and employees have choices. The result? Reduced management strata (just ask Tony Hsieh and employees who are part of the Zappos holacracy experiment) — and quite possibly no more opportunity for promotion than in previous years.
Interestingly, employees who respond on the topic of growth aren’t focused on near-term promotions. Yet many managers still assume that employees will disengage if the ladder isn’t available for climbing. In reality, that’s a management cop-out. Growth goes beyond a higher position or a better parking space. Our survey research has shown that growth doesn’t always equate with promotion.
A path forward: 2018 and beyond.
The answer for many organizations seems to be “grow where you’re planted,” and that’s not a bad thing. Virtually anyone can grow within his or her position, and opportunity needn’t be directly tied to a new title. Employees need to take a greater degree of ownership for their own growth, but that doesn’t mean managers are off the hook.
Managers must think beyond the old standbys of promotion and training courses. Here are a few ways they can fulfill their responsibilities to their companies and their employees.
- Delegate. This isn’t the same as pawning off unpleasant tasks managers don’t want to do themselves. Delegating correctly requires managers to look for responsibilities and occasions that can create growth opportunities for their direct reports. Then, managers should let go — with the appropriate amount of guidance, of course — and let their team members have at it.
- Provide stretch assignments. Many employees complain their roles are rote, requiring use of the same set of skills over and over, with few chances to stretch. Managers should look to uncover workers’ untapped or untested skills. After all, numerous employees report they advanced into other roles (or grew within their current roles) because they proved they had a much-needed skill that others didn’t possess. Those opportunities to shine often came as a result of an astute manager who aligned a business need with a stretch opportunity.
- Work outside the norm. Human Resources students at universities often ask me, “How can I get noticed as a great HR advisor?” I tell them the truth: They must understand not only their own field but others’ fields and functions as well. It’s eye-opening for HR professionals to get out and experience the challenges faced by their colleagues in finance, operations and every other division. (Similarly, it wouldn’t hurt finance folks to see the people beyond the numbers on their spreadsheets.) Managers are better equipped with resources to see across functions and job roles. They can work with their team members to identify cross-position or cross-function learning opportunities.
- Present when/then opportunities. This approach can be controversial, as some worry it might imply a promise. Essentially, “when/then” involves a two-way agreement: “When you (become certified as a Project Management Professional), you will be ready to (take over the next project team).” Helping employees see when/then opportunities creates win-win scenarios.
- Mentor. Chances are, individuals in management roles have had opportunities to watch and learn from those with similar responsibilities. Now, it’s their turn to do the teaching. Managers need to look for teaching moments and take advantage of opportunities to find reasons to help others grow.
- Allow (and expect) failure. Be assured, it will happen. Not every delegated responsibility or new assignment will result in resounding success. Managers should make sure they align expectations with their employees, but they must understand workers who still are operating in growth mode won’t always be able to achieve agreed-upon milestones. Managers need to practice tolerance and provide a safety net so learners have a gentle landing if not everything goes perfectly.