This Leadership Approach is Damaging Careers. A Harvard Business Review Study Explains

In the wake of The Great Resignation, many business leaders have frantically sought ways to keep their best talent on board. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, of course — it depends on industry, available resources, business makeup, and at least a dozen other factors.

There is one recurring best practice that seems to have consistent impact, however: Offer professional development. In other words, give your employees the opportunity to level up in their careers with skills training and credentialing.

Companies with inchoate or absent professional development programs can often be tempted to take an “in the moment” tack: delegate work to those down the ladder so they get experience in management, strategy development, and leadership.

As The Harvard Business Review (HBR) revealed in a series of studies, however, this well-meaning attempt at informal professional development can quickly go belly up. Research suggests that it often reduces employees’ energy levels and job satisfaction, making them reluctant to take on similar “outside the box” tasks in the future.

The root of that energy sap? Lack of leadership support. HBR studies revealed that, in many cases, employees who were given additional responsibilities didn’t have ongoing guidance from higher-ups. They were left to their own devices.

But there’s another piece here that the HBR article doesn’t touch on, but is equally as important: job creep. It’s often disguised as professional development, but there’s a fine line between leveling up one’s skills and simply taking on more work.

Many businesses encourage employees to stretch themselves beyond their job description to show they’re ready for a promotion, and yet there’s no formal process in place for determining what that additional work should be or how it figures into considerations for promotion.

My point is this: Giving your employees extra work and calling it professional development without thought, structure, or planning is more than just a cop out — it’s borderline abusive, and might push your best talent to leave.

If you’re serious about leveling up your team, structure a career advancement track with clear milestones and support mechanisms so you avoid the energy drain HBR underscores, and the scope creep that plagues businesses across industries.

(A final note: If you’re interested in the practice/impact of scope creep in the workplace, I recommended reading this academic article. It’s a good foundational look at how job creep takes shape, which will help you avoid it in your own company.)

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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