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Make Employees Responsible for Their Own Development

And employ people who can accept that responsibility.
Make employees responsible for their own development
photo by John Lester

Formal training and development typically play a role in talent-management strategies, but employees also informally absorb skills and knowledge through their work. They learn when they collaborate with colleagues, ask supervisors for help, or simply observe others doing their jobs.

Employees will get more out of such informal learning if they realize it’s occurring and know that the company values it, says Jill Ellingson, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, in a white paper for the National Center for the Middle Market.

Ellingson writes that employees “think tactically: ‘I must obtain this discrete piece of information in order to complete this task.’ But imagine if they thought strategically: ‘Merely by having this conversation I am getting smarter about the way things work here and how different people approach problems. In the process, I am increasing my own human capital and my value to the organization. And this company encourages that.’”

Employees who see this bigger picture will seek more opportunities to learn and to squeeze more learning from every encounter. They will pursue new relationships and experiences that provide information, insight, or perspective. And they will constantly evaluate their own skill and knowledge.

Ellingson calls this process “self-directed development.” She recommends four practices to encourage it:

1. Hire the motivated, the curious, the social and the dedicated.
Look for employees who seize the initiative, hunger for new projects and roles, and cheerfully accept responsibility. Effective self-educators are naturally curious with a bias toward improvement. They are comfortable seeking out and interacting with other people and committed to their own careers.

2. Make self-guided development part of the job.
Explain the concepts of informal learning and self-guided development to employees and proclaim them a priority. Talk about them in performance reviews. Encourage everyone to give one another feedback. Promote knowledge-sharing as the cultural norm.

3. Maximize interaction.
Structure jobs in ways that require employees to converse and coordinate their efforts. Parse projects so that more work happens simultaneously rather than sequentially, resulting in collaboration rather than hand-offs. Offer job rotation or let employees audition in stretch positions. Incorporate a solicit-feedback step in some tasks. Give teams more autonomy and people more autonomy to create teams. Build more opportunities for in-house networking into the workday.

4. Make time for reflection.
Give employees time to take stock of their own strengths and weaknesses, to determine what they need to improve their performances, and to chart a course for obtaining that skill or knowledge. Then proceed with a light touch, letting employees take responsibility for their own futures.



Self-directed learning is effective because it allows people to focus on useful information they don’t have, exposes them to information they wouldn’t get through passive observation, and may enhance retention, according to a paper published last fall in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. But we’re not always the best judges of what information to seek out, say Todd Gureckis and Doug Markant of New York University.


  1. This may be all well and good, provided the top sets the stage. It so often comes down to the Do As I Say, Not As I Do. If upper management is not seen to be learners and in a constant state of becoming, there is no way you will ever build learning and self-improvement into your culture. You can hire and do all of these things until the cows come home, but when you get right down to it: It all starts at the top.

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Make Employees Responsible for Their Own Development

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