How to Develop Your People Even When You Have No Time

During our Zoom meeting last week, a client was worrying about how little attention he’s given to the formal development of his team members in the last year. He wants them to progress, and he has some ideas about the ways they need to grow, but he feels so stressed and stretched so thin that he doesn’t have the time or energy to invest.

Many leaders feel this way. They’re already facing an almost constant stream of challenges, either trying to keep things together during the pandemic and beyond, or coping with opportunities and growth, which can be equally taxing.

But it’s not helpful to think of development as something extra you do for your people. And it’s not motivating to treat it as an extra requirement from your human resources department because they want to position your company as an employer of choice, or your board because they want your organization to develop its bench strength. Instead, consider development as a new tool to ensure the work gets done and your team generates the best possible results.

Add Questions to Your Standard Check-ins

It’s hard to keep development front of mind all the time — probably just as hard as it is to schedule dedicated development time with all your subordinates every quarter. But if you shift your approach to your ongoing management processes just slightly, you’ll be able to integrate developmental conversation into your standard interactions about work process and progress. 

Here’s how you can create a new kind of scaffolding to support developmental discussions. In each one-on-one or touch-base meeting, explicitly ask yourself two questions before you start: “What does this employee need?” which is a very general question, and “What do I need to change in the way I work with this employee so that they have what they need?” which is much more specific, and more within your control. Think of all the practical options you can; you could jot them down as prompts for your meeting.

During your meeting, after you’ve asked about job progress and how projects are going, ask, “What do you need from me to get that job done?” or “How can I help you to handle that more easily?” And then listen — visibly if you’re in-person, or if you’re on video, by inclining your body toward them, including nodding and taking notes. Give them general prompts, from “Please tell me more” to “Mm-hmm” and “Uh-huh.” If there are details or items that they don’t touch on, ask about those more directly.

Ensure Employees Feel Heard and Understood

The important thing is to be encouraging and supportive in both language and tone so employees feel comfortable enough to tell you what they need. Your goal is to increase their trust and confidence so that, over time, they will start announcing what they need from you, whether it’s resources, moral support, or a sounding board. Acknowledge their concerns and preferences with language like, “I can see why you would think that,” or “It’s clear that you feel strongly about that,” so they know you can tell what they think is important.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to give them the resources they’re asking for, or that you’ll always agree with their requests for support. Sometimes the best thing is to nudge them toward trying to handle things themselves after discussing a situation or rehearsing a solution with you. You can ask leading questions like, “How would you deal with that if I weren’t here to discuss it?” or “What’s your instinct about what to do next?”

Be careful not to undercut team members by dismissing their ideas with comments like, “Oh, that won’t work” or “I know you think that’s important, but…” Instead, continue to draw their thinking forward with language like, “Have you considered how your colleague might react to that?” or “Yes, that’s a real concern. We also need to consider…”

Keep the Big Picture in View

From time to time, you’ll still need to share additional context on goals, coach them on their behavior, and give them feedback on their mistakes. And you’ll still need to put some effort into helping them plan their career trajectories and consider their options. But if you keep asking the right questions to help employees grow and do better in their jobs, they will expand their capacity for responsibility and impact naturally. With very little extra effort, you’ll have provided quite a lot of development.

Onward and upward —

LK

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