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Take a black box approach to personal development

Wednesday 7th November 2018

Personal development is important in every company. Unless your recruit is only being hired to carry out an menial task or temping, they will have potential opportunities to develop.

Indeed, for many people, particularly young staff keen to build successful careers, the quality of training and development is a key issue when choosing to join a company, or stay there.

However, sometimes, the whole process can become rather difficult. Improvement and development involves not just training on the job, but regular assessment.

For all too many staff, the three-monthly appraisal or something similar seems less like an opportunity to identify ways to improve and build skills, and more like an ordeal to be feared and loathed.

This comes about because assessment can too often seem like a nit-picking exercise, in which the focus is on areas where an employee has fallen short. This can leave the staff member feeling inadequate, embarrassed and stripped of confidence, when what they really need is a positive approach that can galvanise them to build on their successes.

Of course, that is not to say that managers should just ignore underperformance for risk of hurting someone’s feelings. But the focus needs not to be on recrimination, but a ‘black box’ approach to improvement.

The black box, of course, is the flight recorder – usually actually orange – kept in an aircraft so that in the event of a fatal crash, information can be used to establish what went wrong. Its chief purpose is less about who is to blame and more about how recurrences can be prevented.

A similar approach could work well in an office. It focuses on what things have gone wrong and what have worked well, and in the former case establishes what can be done to improve them.

Indeed, this may mean scheduling in extra training to improve these areas. Moreover – and critically – the staff members in question should have their own input. Rather than making them feel bad for failure, they should be allowed to take ownership and that should begin by allowing them to give feedback.

They may have good reason to feel, for example, that they have not mastered a skill because of a lack of training, or information has not been made clear.

This approach assumes from the outset that it is normal that people will not get everything right, and that the evaluation is therefore designed to eliminate problems honestly and without leaving people feeling one inch tall because they have not hit a target or have made some mistakes.

While the difference may seem nuanced, the shift towards a positive attitude focused on looking forwards and improving rather than a negative one that dwells on past errors should gain a lot more buy-in from staff, who will have a consequently more positive attitude towards their development.

A further key element does is need to accentuate the positive. A focus on the shortcomings of employees usually comes from the assumption that it is reasonable to expect them to get everything right, all day, every day. This creates the additional problem that someone can carry out most of their job with efficiency, skill and dedication, often under a lot of pressure, only to find they get no appreciation for it.

Indeed, underperformance can often be a consequence of poor morale, with a lack of recognition, a focus on the negative and an absence of incentive for doing well. It is important, therefore, that the ‘black box’ approach also monitors performance with a view to recognising and rewarding good work, as well as correcting errors.

Image courtesy of iStock/AntonioGuillem

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