It’s clear that employees want opportunities to grow. What’s less clear, however, is what exactly employees mean when they reference a lack of opportunity as a reason for resigning. After all, many organizations invest heavily in developing career pathways, transparent platforms and internal marketplaces. And yet, might these very systems be part of the problem? Have our efforts to enable development actually masked the genuine prospects for growth that are always available? Are we conflating advancement with development — and in the process generating employee confusion and dissatisfaction?
Many of the employees who are considering leaving a position because of its lack of development offer some interesting answers to these questions. They talk about how long it’s been since their last promotion, how many open positions are going unfilled or are being eliminated, the stiffer competition for open slots in an “all-virtual” organization, or a lack of mobility. Comments like these suggest that many employees believe that if they’re not moving, changing positions or being promoted, they aren’t being developed. They are defining the phrase, “opportunities for development,” in very literal terms as advancement.
This narrow definition presents an obvious problem. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone who wants to grow if a promotion (or even role change) is the exclusive definition of development. Engagement and retention today demand updating the equation and changing the calculus of employee expectations. Success requires a shift of focus from advancement (an external experience that we have little control over) to development (an internal experience that individuals own).
The good news is that development is available every day in countless ways to those who are willing to shift their focus. Look around your organization and you’ll be overwhelmed with opportunities to learn, grow and develop: managers offering coaching, peers sharing feedback, networking events.
But opportunities like these are quieter and less shiny than a splashy promotion or move — so they’re frequently overlooked for what they are: rich, robust development. How can we reclaim development and refine people’s definition and expectations beyond advancement to include all that is already available almost anytime and anywhere? It boils down to two priorities: label it and enable it.
L&D, as well as leaders and executives at all levels, must raise awareness of the ubiquitous and unnoticed development opportunities that already exist within the organization. Make sure that the word “development” is among the most frequently used within an organization. It’s the perfect descriptor for so many activities: Say things like “development coaching” or “development feedback,” instead of simply “coaching” or “feedback.” It’s necessary to ensure that employees recognize the growth opportunities that abound.
Make sure that leaders and managers are prepared to double down on development. Help them understand the importance of emphasizing the growth-related intentions behind so many of their interactions with others. Make sure that they’re helping their employees establish development goals that go beyond the desire for advancement. Ensure that “development” appears on every one-on-one agenda. Check that organic learning and growth is celebrated as much as — or more than — advancement.
The loss of talent is troubling at any time. But especially now, organizations must do whatever it takes to retain their workforce. Some reasons for attrition may be outside of your control. However, the frequently cited “lack of development opportunities” is not. Despite the reality that advancement might be limited, your organization is offering rich prospects for growth, day-in and day-out. Let’s reframe growth. Let’s help employees recognize and appreciate that development opportunities are available to them. And let’s usher in a new era: The Great Reclaiming of Development.