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How to Increase Employee Engagement Through Employee Development

16 min read
Employee development means helping employees to explore their interests and passions and grow in the career direction that’s right for them. Done right, it means their future success and the success of the company.

What do we mean by employee development exactly?

We usually define growth and development as a sister concept to training, but it extends further than that. It’s less about classroom learning and more about having a long-term plan for yourself that puts your curiosity and growth front and center.

Employers share a lot of responsibility for employee development, but it should never be a top-down directive imposed on staff. Instead, it’s a process and a deliberate practice that involves the right tools, the right culture and plenty of high-quality conversations between staff, managers and leaders.

Why is employee growth and development important?

Employee growth and development is valuable for many reasons. But the most compelling one might be its impact on engagement. Over the last 10 years, growth and development is one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement I’ve seen across organizational listening programs.

Engagement matters, wherever you go in the world and whatever kind of business you’re in. Be it construction or consulting, factory floor or finance department, people care about where their company is going and how they’re contributing to its goals.

Investments for development are a win all around. When you invest in employee development:

  • Employees increase their knowledge, skills, and abilities
  • Leaders grow themselves and their teams – enabling team members to expand their responsibilities and work on diverse assignments
  • The organization gains higher productivity, efficiency, and retention1

Trends in the employee development space

To help you navigate the literature, here’s a whistlestop tour of some of the current and emerging trends in employee development.

Social learning

Social learning is something we’ve seen happen throughout history. When you figure something out and it works really well you may want to share it with others to benefit from your discovery – the magic that happens today is that it can be facilitated through technology to benefit those far beyond earshot.

A social learning environment is a space, usually a digital one, where you can upvote, comment on or recommend training or learning opportunities within a community or peer group. Some examples are things like LinkedIn or Facebook for work, and the kinds of networks that organically spring up around an organization or industry. Anything that has that living quality to it qualifies as social learning. It’s something that’s happening in a lot of companies, but the true value of it is still being explored.

For employers, there’s an advantage to the social learning trend – it makes the task of providing learning easier. There’s integration with a wider network of learning resources including those on places like YouTube and others in the public domain. Anyone with enough curiosity can seek out high-quality answers to their questions.

There’s also a self-directed element. Employees can explore and guide one another towards a learning path, rather than being confined to a top-down leader-directed model where there’s a compliance aspect for X number of courses from a set course catalogue.

Social learning also has benefits around reward and recognition. Socially broadcasting things like rewarding an employee for excellent work and specific behaviors can amplify the impact beyond the event itself. It not only serves to motivate the employee receiving the recognition, but also sparks aspiration and motivation among other employees wanting to keep pace with the example.


Organizations are moving beyond thinking that they need only provide a one-size-fits all set of training courses or learning paths that are highly structured. They are beginning to recognize that learning has to be more tailored and based on an individual’s unique requirements. This idea ties in well with social learning and the idea of people finding their own path through the power of referrals and recommendations and learning through problem-solving and practice.

Organizations can still provide structured learning, but potentially with the addition of looser systems that add an element of gamification to boost exploration and involvement in the programs.

In some companies, the idea of an individualized journey extends to a whole-person approach where employees are encouraged to bring their wider development into the workplace if they feel comfortable doing so. An example may be something like a business offering its staff development courses on financial fitness, meditation, or other well-being activities.

Career Lattice vs Career Ladder

The career ladder is the traditional, linear hierarchy we’ve seen historically, with a vertical journey through a defined career path.

By contrast, the career lattice is more representative of the kind of flat structures we are commonly seeing in start-ups and younger businesses or where organizations are flattening their structures intentionally.

In a career lattice, employees are encouraged to consider lateral moves to round out their experiences. They may gain a deeper appreciation of other aspects of the business or find a new place to apply their skills. As the employment landscape changes and people’s career journeys are less predictable, they may desire these experiences to determine where they fit best in the organization.

Specialization vs Generalism

There’s often a push and pull between encouraging super-specialized skillsets, with employees taking a deep dive into highly specific areas of expertise, and developing generalists who can play multiple roles and be agile in their assignments.

Leaders should be able to help their teams think through their options, assess where their strengths lie and explore when to go deeper or expand to be more versatile. Deep and broad skills bases will suit different people, and development can help employees discover which approach is right for them.

360 degree feedback can be a great way to help assess strengths and sense-check personal assumptions about where someone’s skills lie.

Key concepts in employee development

Some overarching ideas that will help steer any employee development program, whatever the methods.

Integration vs bolt-on

However modern or well-designed a learning program is, it still needs to be connected to the organization’s purpose and each person’s role. This happens through conversations between managers and team members.

Plans must be made based on those discussions and in the context of those supportive professional relationships. In development one-to-one meetings, employees and their managers should always be thinking about the bigger ‘why’ behind the courses they’re taking – how that’s building a strength and how it will support the individual’s long-term growth.

Without that foundation of integrated thinking, it’s possible for employee development activities to feel like something that’s been imposed top-down, as a box-ticking exercise and without a clear application to an employee’s work activities.

For example, a Personal Development Plan template can be invaluable. But it need not be a blanket requirement for every employee, just as it shouldn’t be mandatory for every staff member to rotate between departments, especially if they’re passionate about their own specialism. These kinds of options and tools should be brought in off the back of the kind of personal interactions and conversations we’ve discussed, through open communication and discussion of needs and goals.

A good sign that a development approach is integrated, rather than feeling bolted on, is clear and loud support in an organization and an appetite among staff to take advantage of it. Another positive check is that space and time are cleared for it, and it’s not just put on top of an employee’s daily workload. Some other requirements may need to be moved aside to make time for participating in learning and practically applying the skills.

Learning doesn’t feel linear

Sometimes we believe that we’re great at something and rate our skills highly, then we find out a bit more about all that goes into it and feel despair at the mountain of effort to learn it all. Eventually, we may take for granted some of the hard-won lessons and assume that they’re common experiences or knowledge.

This is described as the Dunning-Kruger Effect,2 which charts the journey from beginners’ overconfidence through the struggle with true learning and on to growing competence and knowledge.

Learning programs can also help smooth out some of these curves and most importantly, help your people through the initial dip (‘the trough of despair’) where they may doubt themselves or feel like giving up on a long-term goal. Structure and support can be vital at that point where independent learners might falter.

Mastery vs achievement

An achievement mindset focuses on meeting an end goal, such as passing an exam or gaining a title.3 It’s an approach that’s often carried over from how we learn at school or in early life. You prioritize what you need to pay attention to based on how the requirements to meet the standard or bar.

By contrast, a mastery or growth mindset is often a loftier goal and puts the emphasis on a bigger picture like becoming fluent in a language (instead of passing the class exam). The learner sees their goal as improvement and has an applied, practical purpose in mind for the learning’s end results.

The mastery mindset is usually the more fruitful one when it comes to development, and it’s something that leaders can model and support employees in developing.

Hard and soft skills

Many employers find that not all new employees come in with the requisite soft skills for their roles. That’s especially true among workers early in their careers whose experience may be academic rather than professional. Identifying where soft vs hard skills should be targeted, and how best to upskill in each, is essential for employees as they chose their goals.


Social learning can be a great way to supplement some of the soft skills, whereas hard skills are more likely to need formalized training, practice and application time.

Tips for leaders and managers

1. Make time and space for learning

Don’t unintentionally punish employees for attending training opportunities by keeping the pressure of their day-to-day assignments at normal levels during the training. No one wants to end up back at desk with an extra day’s (or week’s) work to do. Support and reinforce that the training is valuable and also important by asking them questions about what they’ve learned. Encourage them in making time to practice their new knowledge and share it with others.

2. Leverage the power of ownership

This is known as the IKEA effect4 – it’s the idea that you love something more when you make it yourself. This is one of the reasons that we encourage every employee’s ownership of their own development process. When done correctly, it leads to more engagement and pride in the end result. This might mean designing your own learning plan rather than being told to use a standard company-wide method. Beyond that, employees should be asked to articulate their personal development plans and share them with others, too.

3. Budget for learning (and training)

Make sure development is seen as an essential investment, and express this in terms of time and dollars. If you’re in HR you may think of this differently than if you’re a frontline leader working with teams, but either way, be protective of your budget and proud of your priorities. Don’t let the time and money you’re putting into the effort be seen as a tertiary goal or a compliance activity – it’s a key component of your bottom line results.

4. Push progress, not perfection

Sometimes the best course of action is just to get started, and the act of beginning and committing can have huge value in itself. Being overly results-driven can lead to a temptation to rush, but when it comes to development, priorities are always changing and – with a mastery approach – may never be truly finished. Remember, we can move mountains a pebble at a time with consistency and persistence.

5. Remember that development is a practice

Like meditation or physical fitness, development is something that happens as a practice. It is maintained throughout the whole lifecycle of employment and at all levels of an organization. If a business sees employee development as something that’s been implemented and completed on an annual basis, the program may be doomed to feel burdensome and compliance-driven rather than expanding the potential opportunities for employees.

6. Put learning into context

Take a cue from the idea of social learning and place knowledge where it’s needed. Break out of the training course mold and adopt a just-in-time mindset, so that information is available to staff when they’re about to do a task or begin a process. Lunch-and-learns, team created posters, digital tooltips or even post-it notes can help you out here. Reward people for sharing when they learn something new and useful. Learning takes hold when it is applied and we gain mastery over concepts as we practice them in real-world problem-solving settings.

A final word

What all of this adds up to is one simple idea: Help your employees find purpose in their work and inspire their curiosity, give them the ability to set goals at the level of overall vision, not one-time achievements. Above all, communicate honestly and authentically, so they have a collaborative space to explore wherever their professional life is going.

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Employee XM Team

This article was written by the EmployeeXM team

Our EX Scientists are a global team of Employee Experience consultants who deliver advisory services for our clients to help them design and deliver world class EX strategies & programs. They provide empirically driven, best practice solutions.


1Qualtrics 2020 Global Employee Experience Trends Report
2Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121–1134.
3Dweck, Carol S.; Leggett, Ellen L. (1988). “A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality”. Psychological Review. 95 (2): 256–273.
4Norton, Michael; Mochon, Daniel; Ariely, Dan (9 September 2011). “The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love” (PDF). Journal of Consumer Psychology. 22 (3): 453–460.