How To Empower Employees To Take Charge of Their Personal Development

Goal Management
Engagement & Motivation
March 7, 2022

When you hear "personal and career development," you may feel a flash of dread. As a leader or manager, you know the importance of employee development. Time over time, statistics and studies show a lack of development is a leading cause of employee turnover.

Here are a few examples:

Despite the glaring statistics, for many managers, it seems impossible to prioritize. You know it's your responsibility. And, of course, you want to help employees grow their skills and careers. But your to-do list is overflowing with a million other tasks that are arguably more urgent.

Ideally, your employees would take an active role in their professional development. They would come to you with questions, sharing with you their goals and professional aspirations.

The reality is employee development should be a two-way street. Managers shouldn't bear all the responsibility. You can empower your employees to advocate for their professional development and growth.

In this article, we'll cover actionable strategies on how to empower employees to take charge of their own professional development. As a result, your employees will be given the tools and road map to take charge of their own careers. As a manager, your role will be more of a helpful guide rather than the primary driving force. 

What is Employee Empowerment?

Would you rather have to micromanage your employees to get even the smallest of tasks completed? Or would you rather have them be self-motivated and independent? Of course, most managers would choose the second. Self-motivated employees mean less work for you as a leader.

Despite this, many leaders end up doing the opposite. The idea of giving employees more freedom can trigger a leader's biggest fears. In short, people taking advantage of company time and not delivering results. Many try to avoid this by doubling down on the opposite of autonomy. Control.

Like many things in human psychology, the answer lies in a counterintuitive approach. When leaders offer employees freedom and autonomy, they are motivated and perform better.

In an HBR article titled When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn't, researchers explain what it means to empower employees. They state, "leaders who were perceived as more empowering were more likely to delegate authority to their employees, ask for their input, and encourage autonomous decision-making."

In essence, empowering employees is about providing a baseline level of guidance, support, and structure. But also give employees the opportunity to test their ideas and innovate within those set parameters.

In other words, it's not about letting employees run wild and free. But giving them a basic structure and letting them experiment within it. According to the researchers, this management style leads to employees who "are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals, who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them."

How does all this apply to employee development? Managers often act as the driving force of employee development. This places an undue burden on managers on top of all their other duties. 

In reality, employee development has a greater chance of thriving when employees are empowered to advance their development.

With a few strategies, managers can enable employees to take the lead in their own careers. Managers are still responsible for high-level direction, support, and approval. But employees will be in charge of steering their own ship.

How To Empower Employees To Take Charge of Their Development

1. Understand employee needs from the start

Often, development talks begin before an employee starts their new job. If they didn’t occur in the interview, a great time to start is during the onboarding process. 

By setting the tone from the start, you can show your employees that their development matters to you, and you can guide them through building a learning path to help them succeed in their roles (and beyond). 

Here are a few questions to start these conversations:

  • What are your long-term professional and career ambitions?
  • What do you hope to achieve in this role?
  • What skills do you hope to acquire or improve?
  • Are you looking to grow your career quickly (i.e. take on management responsibilities) or deepen your knowledge as an individual contributor?

If you use skills assessments in your recruiting process, you can use those insights to identify skill gaps and areas for improvement.

Empowering employees to tackle self-development from the start of their time at your organization will show them they are in control of their future. This perspective shift can help them view their new role as a growth opportunity instead of feeling like they are a slave to your bottom line. The more in control of their future they feel, the more likely they will want to continue their journey at your company.

2. Embed it into your culture with a dedicated meeting

Work is busy. Our to-do lists are constantly growing with new and shifting priorities. By its very nature, “employee career development” is a forward-looking process. When you’re so busy thinking about the here and now, planning for the future can quickly fall by the wayside. 

This is why it's crucial to carve out dedicated time for development discussions. Be realistic. Don’t set these meetings at a frequency that seems unattainable. That will only lead to cancelled meetings, and nothing kills employee morale like cancelling a meeting they were looking forward to. Start small, test out how employees respond, and adjust accordingly from there. 

For example, you can start by booking a meeting every 6-month with each employee. By proactively bringing up this topic and dedicating time to it, you will demonstrate to employees that you are serious about their professional development. In turn, they will be more likely to be proactive on their side, come prepared for the meetings, and be an advocate for their own development.

3. Set clear goals and expectations

Getting a recurring meeting set up is a good start. But it’s not enough for employees to feel empowered to take charge of their professional development. They still have to consider important questions like:

  • What long-term goals are you working towards?
  • What type of projects are you enjoying or not enjoying?
  • What skills do you want to improve?

Remember: Empowering employees isn’t about letting them run wild and free. Employees still need some high-level direction. This is especially true when they are more junior or at the start of their careers. In other words, clearly defining expectations and setting goals is crucial to ensuring employees start on the right foot.

For example, as part of your discussion for each meeting, you can establish one “career and professional development” objective to achieve.

This can take many forms, for example, working on a self-directed project, shadowing with another department, or taking an online course.

With open communication and asking the right questions, you can help employees develop a high-level objective to work towards. Establishing clear goals and objectives is the foundation of employee empowerment. The idea is to help employees with a general direction to work towards; how they get there is up to them.

4. Provide access to resources for development

A great way to empower employees to pursue their development is to set aside a budget for learning and development.  

For example:

  • Online courses
  • Webinars, training programs, workshops, etc.
  • Magazines, publications, books, etc.
  • Conferences, events, etc.

Of course, some materials and resources aren't free. But many others these days are free or highly affordable. You can consider carving out a monthly "learning budget" where employees are reimbursed for any learning materials and resources above. Even a small budget can go a long way for online courses and learning materials. 

As a way of motivating employees to take part in additional learning and development, you can create a channel in your local work chat where employees share any additional learning programs that they are undertaking, whether it be attending a webinar or completing an online course. 

You can even make it a group challenge to get the ball rolling. For example, find an online course that appeals to your entire team and make it a quarterly challenge to complete the course. You can even incentivize and reward those who follow through with their final goal.

Using a tool like Qarrot, you can set up an incentive campaign and reward team members who hit their personal development goals once (or multiple times) with award points and badges.

Qarrot Incentive Campaigns

Providing access to these learning opportunities and materials will help establish a culture of learning and development among your team. Employees will feel their career development is being prioritized, empowering them to take action.

5. Help them identify their strengths (and weaknesses!)

As a manager, you know that no two employees are created alike. Some employees are amazing self-starters and need very little prompting. Others, however, seem impossible to convince to go beyond the minimum.

In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott, author and management expert, proposes a model to help managers evaluate their employees' performance and guide them into roles which will allow them to perform at their best.

In other words, Scott truly believes that everyone can be an A-player employee. If they perform at average or mediocre levels, what she calls “B player employees,” it reflects a bad job fit. A manager's job is to steer employees out of this limbo. A new position may even be necessary.

The first step to empower employees is to help them identify their strengths, highlight what they are good at, and where their potential lies. But the other side of the coin is important, too; challenging employees by letting them know where their work is falling short or where their weaknesses lie. 

Of course, it’s difficult to have these conversations. But challenging people shows that you care enough to point out when things aren't going well. And Scott believes the “discomfort is better than being labelled permanently “B Players.” Ultimately, it will benefit both parties (and even the entire organization) when employees' strengths are developed and utilized.

6. Help facilitate connections

As a manager or leader, you may have exposure or access to other leaders or departments that your employees may not have contact with. These connections can be a powerful way to promote their development and learning. 

For example, during an employee's tenure, they might realize they want to develop skills they aren't using in their current role. They may also express an interest in learning more about another department or team.

This curiosity doesn't mean you must transfer a valuable employee to another team. You can, however, arrange an introduction and offer shadowing or mentorship opportunities. The goal is to empower employees to explore different areas of interest. 

Ultimately, what’s better for the organization's bottom line? Having an employee unhappy and struggling in their current role. Or have the employee be more productive and feel empowered in a role that’s a better fit for their skills and talents.

In the end, allowing your team to explore other options and grow their skills will give them a sense of purpose in their work. More importantly, they will feel the company and leaders truly care about their long-term growth and happiness, which is the best strategy for employee empowerment.

7. Recognize & reward development efforts

Employee recognition is underutilized as an employee motivation and empowerment tool. It costs zero dollars to give recognition. By letting employees know what you value with positive reinforcement, you can boost their motivation.

In the context of professional development, giving employees recognition for completing an online course, meeting training requirements, or taking on a stretch assignment can be a powerful way to motivate employees to continue down this path. 

Moreover, it can set the bar for the rest of the team. Using a recognition tool like Qarrot, you can easily post a recognition to a public social feed for everyone to see. When you give recognition for a specific achievement or embodying a certain value, it signals to the team what is important to you. As a result, this provides employees with the incentive to meet this standard as well.

Remember, the best type of recognition is specific and timely. Don’t wait too long until the goal is complete to offer recognition, and try to avoid vague or high-level “good jobs.” Shine a light on the precise accomplishment the employee completed and its impact on you and the team. 

This type of detailed recognition is most likely to fuel a growth mindset among your employees and team. As a result, your team will be more motivated to continue to embrace challenges, seek learning opportunities, and invest in their development.

Final Thoughts

Being a manager involves more than guiding your employees through their daily tasks. It's about helping them become the best versions of themselves and giving them the tools to grow in the company.

But this duty doesn't have to fall on the shoulders of leaders. Employees should be responsible for being proactive about their development as well. First, leaders must provide some basic guidance and support—empowering employees with a roadmap to growth and success.

When employees are inspired to take control of their own development, it's not just good for them—it's good for the whole company. Setting clear goals and expectations, identifying employee strengths, and providing access to learning resources are critical steps toward empowerment.

As employees invest in their development, the positive effects spread throughout the organization. This leads to happier employees, better work, and a team capable of handling challenges. Ultimately, when organizations commit to helping employees shape their careers, it's a win-win.

Martha Kendall

Martha Kendall is a freelance B2B SaaS writer who loves creating strategic blog posts that drive traffic and convert. When she’s not writing about marketing, you can find her petting fluffy cats and reading good books.